The Stories that we Grew up on – “The City and the City” by China Miéville


On the plane ride from Singapore to London, I read China Miéville’s The City and the City in its entirety. It is a compelling read, and I must admit I had previously thought he was some sort of steampunk writer based on what very (very!) little I knew of his previous books (of which I admittedly had not read before), but I have to admit I found myself much more inclined to want to read him after I read that he had once said that he wanted to write a book in every genre — likewise I always think I would like to write a song that transitions into every other genre. So… I think we must have some things we can agree on.

The book’s style is hard-boiled; the novel was apparently written as as a gift to his terminally-ill mother with a fondness for the mystery novel. The language is very readable, and for a novel that invokes Kafka in its cover reviews, it turns out to be a completely precise and logical affair. But I guess this sort of preciseness is necessary to sustain the peculiar conceit of the novel’s setting being in a city that shares its physical space with yet another city. You would imagine this sort of “overlay” could result in a setting that is distortedly surreal, but fortunately I think it has been hemmed in very believably with restraint and control.

Now this is a spoiler alert! The crux of the “The City and The City” begins with Inspector Tyador Borlú, a seemingly Balkan-style detective being assigned to the murder case of a young North American archaeology student residing in Ul Qoman who was apparently murdered in Besz, and her being seemingly embroiled in some intrigue in her belief of the existence of “Orsiny”, a supposed third imaginary city which exists in-between the spaces of the cities of Ul Qoman and Besz.

Ul Qoman and Beszel exists as two cities which actually exist in the same geographical space, however, people in each city are required to “unsee” the other city – distinguishing them through “key signifiers of architecture, clothing, alphabet and manner; outlaw colors and gestures, obligatory details, and supposed distinctions in national physiognomies”.

So how does a city exist in the same space as another city? Perhaps it takes inspiration from the idea of quantum superposition (in its most layman definition) to be how something like an electron can actually exist in all of its theoretically possible states at the same time, but it is simply that when it comes to measuring or observing it, only one of its possible configurations is observed. It is funny, since George and I have discussed this (it seems, not too long ago), but I know I gloss over the technicalities of it, whereas he studied it (in part) as a thing in Physics (and Philosophy?). I think I am attracted to it as I have always viewed the city as a place with a separate layer of meaning that could be manipulated even without manipulating its actual physical architectures. I mean, this is the crux of the Singapore Psychogeographical Society and the projects I’ve been doing for the last few years.

Anyway, in the novel, the idea is that Inspector Borlu is having a hard time because he had assumed this case would be handled by “Breach”, this nefarious, scarily ubiquitous all-seeing-eye that polices for illegal crossings, such as in the case of someone who might have crossed illegally from Ul Qoman to Besz (e.g: possibly the murder of the girl).

However, Borlu’s task becomes much more complicated when he learns that it will not be handled by Breach because it had actually been a legal crossing. And because the crossing had been legal, Breach was “not invoked”. We are also told that “(Breach) is not the passage itself from one city to the other, not even with contraband; it is the manner of passage (…) the smartest dealers, though, make sure to cross correctly, are deeply respectful of the cities’ boundaries and pores, so if they are caught they face only the laws…”

As the novel wears on and the investigation deepens, we find out more about the notion of “Orsiny”. The interesting part is when Borlu cannot tell what is potentially “Orsiny” and what is “Breach”. it is harder to tell even from reading the novel in general. If Breach is truly just the thing in-between, then is there truly an Orsiny? A place that everyone in Ul Qoma think is in Beszel and a place in which everyone thinks is in Beszel and not in Ul Qoma? A place that is crosshatched but even more than that? Where is Breach delineated? Is there truly a systemic transgression in which there can exist a secret parasite city where there actually should be nothing be “Breach”?…

I could continue but I think you can read it for yourself. Also, actually I am really excited about the neologisms – dopplurbanology, grosstopically, topolgangers, crosshatching, unseeing, unhearing… I think of course that the idea of unseeing or unhearing doesn’t require a novel in which they are all separated. This happens even in real life where people cannot agree on things but choose to be blind to certain scenarios, and this quote is particularly poignant:

“How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border. There were folktales of renegades who breach and avoid Breach to live between the cities, not exiles but insiles, evading justice and retribution by consummate ignorability. Pahlaniuk’s novel Diary of an Insile had been illegal in Besźel (and, I was sure, in Ul Qoma), but like most people I had skimmed a pirated edition.”

The Rocks of Inis Mor

TEAM FIRE visited Inis Mor the other day. I asked to be taken to see the following: (1) a castle (2) an irish pub (3) a cliff by the sea (4) ROCKS; the first three were easy to find and on the last item, George exceeded himself by deciding to take us to Galway and then to THE ARAN ISLANDS! Galway on its own deserves a whole post to itself but the Aran Islands was completely unreal. Picturesque, completely isolated, harsh weather and extremely beautiful terrain, the island of Inis Mor was apparently the model for Father Ted’s Craggy Island, and also the star of the documentary Man of Aran. We were to stay at a cottage that had been built for the filming of this fictional documentary about life on the islands, which had apparently represented a kind of traditional rural irish lifestyle, now lost in time…

To begin, the ferry ride was already something out of a storybook. One unaccustomed to the seas might be compelled to write home immediately after experiencing the life-changing highs and lows of the ferry from Rossaveal to Inis Mor. Seemingly death-defying, stomach-churning multi-storey heaves and drops over ridiculously high rolling waves of the Atlantic, at some points actually eliciting involuntary high-pitched screams from tourists onboard, clutching the armrests of their seats with white knuckles. With each roll, the horizon would completely disappear and reappear from view. We had already taken the largest ferry, a 400 seater, as we were told that the smaller ferries would not sail on days with poor weather. Indeed I’d imagine a smaller boat being easily swallowed by the waves. Having sat on a fair number of boats in my time but only in the relatively sheltered waters of Singapore, this kind of extreme sea-crossing was something I had never witnessed before.

After some confusion and having to call for help to get a taxi after we wandered away from the pier (into what we realised was a completely sleepy town) – we were eventually received with much hospitality at the Man of Aran Cottage by Joe and Moira. We read that the cottage had been built for the documentary “Man of Aran”, hence its moniker. It is curious to think that it was probably built with the intentions of making it seem as authentic as possible, but now some 80 years on this house seemed as ancient as the others, perched on this unlikely point of the island.

The cottage is situated a fair distance from the “main town” area and this also meant there was absolutely nothing around us at night. The nearest shop (a SPAR, which closes at 6pm) and pub (Joe Watty’s) are close to the port, whereas the Man of Aran is located at the centre of the island, close to the fort. But in the morning, the view from the Man of Aran Cottage is fantastically spectacular. You know like when you hear the frightfully loud sound of a heavy wind whistling on the window when you sit in your city flats and pretend you’re far out in the wilderness? WELL PRETEND NO MORE! This is the real thing.

We were fortunate to have met Andrew at the Man of Aran Cottage; another guest at the Man of Aran at the time. He had spent almost a year on the island back in the 60s, and had penned a book about his experiences in a book, “An Aran Keening”. (We later went down to the bookstores in Galway and tried to find it). He was very kind to show us the way to the Pool na Bpeist or Pool of Serpents, and as we walked there I realised it was very very fortunate that he brought us there the way he did, for we would never have found it otherwise, and the approach he took was very much better.

For the most part, it is simply covered in this endless face of rock, cracking at the surface. Most of the rock is patterned in bold grykes. The rock itself is similar to that of the limestone at the Burren across the ocean; Burren from “Boireann” which means “a rocky place”.



Glacial Erratics
Glacial erratics are rocks which do not belong to the rest of the rock below it and is thought to have been deposited on top of the surface when they were carried on a giant iceberg that floated over the rest of this island during the ice age. Then when the ice melted these large odd stones were deposited on top.

Another glacial erratic


Green moss on Glacial erratic







The plants that lived in the environment were also incredible. You would see these lovely little plants everywhere, growing between the cracks in this almost inhospitable environment and they would look so downy and soft and inviting but if you ever tried to peel one off you would discover they were ROCK SOLID. Tough as nails! Impenetrable! Unchewable! Teeth-breaking! Not to say I tried to chew them but attempting to dislodge a tiny corner of it was more like trying to chew on a car tire.







We were buffeted by strong gusts of wind, fit to blow a person off the cliff face, so we were sometimes crawling slowly towards the edge; creeping over the wet rocks of Aran, over an endless maze of low stone walls, endless landscape of nothing but craggy rock.


This is the Pool of Serpents (Poll na bpeist), a naturally formed geological feature which looks like a rectangular olympic sized swimming pool. Although this is not evident in the picture, as the winds were high (and we so unaccustomed to walking on wet rocks) we were terrified walking so close to the edge…




Dun Aonghasa can be seen at the top of this cliff. It is the one of the most important prehistoric forts on the island and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is basically a very very old fort that is thought to have been used since 1100 BCE.

We also discovered that an entrance fee was actually being charged for people entering Dun Aonghasa, but the point at which they charged travellers was down below. But because we had come from a more ‘extreme’ walk along the rocks and strong winds and then climbed over a low rock fence to get into a well-worn path covered with many tourists in hiking gear, we slipped through without passing that checkpoint. I find that it is a very curious thing to fence up all the rocks and set opening and closing times – we saw the same thing being practiced at Stonehenge. It is baffling because I think me and George operate more along the lines of the “let’s walk in this direction until we find the rock” sort of manner, without care of the “opening or closing time of the tourist attraction”. The rocks on this touristic path were rubbed smooth and very hard to walk on, unlike the rough rocks of the rest of the island.


Dun Aonghasa



The view from Dun Aonghasa

Finally I wanted to add that we found a large rock that had been intentionally placed on the road to stop cars from driving down it as it is used by children frequently. Not a glacial erratic, but I love how it has been placed there with a purpose, on a road. How lovely, to imagine a place where they put a rock to block up the road so that cars won’t drive up and down it, so that people can walk on it freely!

I’ll stop here for now but… NEXT UP: The plants and wildlife of Inis Mor!

Very-nearly but Not-visiting Stonehenge

TEAM FIRE not-visited Stonehenge on a day trip the other day. We took a train from London Waterloo to Salisbury (around £36 return), then the X5 bus (£6.40 for day return) from Salisbury to Amesbury, and then walked from Amesbury and almost got to Stonehenge. This is an account of the non-visit to Stonehenge.



Salisbury and Amesbury both look very pleasant, amply catering to the tourism in the area. Hippy daytrippers and tourists with big cameras. Quaint cafes and people having their all day full english breakfast. We walked from the train station to a bus terminal a short distance away to take the X5 to Amesbury which was a little bit up north. From there our plan was to walk up to the highway and then to the left until we hit Stonehenge.


Stonehenge Road in Amesbury


This way to Stonehenge…


Crossing the river Avon on Queensberry Bridge which was built in 1775. The river brings water to the area and is thought to have been used to transport stone for Stonehenge.


This strange cow was staring at us. So we stared back at it.


There was a dead bird on the road.


I was very amused by these flowers growing everywhere. They seem to be some sort of wild orchid, but I had never seen such flowers before.


A small ladybug hitched a ride on George’s pant leg whilst we had stooped down to look at the orchids. It must have taken a yen to George’s trousers, because it could not be detached initially, causing some trauma as I didn’t know how to remove it without hurting it.


Another ladybug having a crawl on George’s hand.


We found another strange sight – a snail on another snail on a poppy flower?


The dandelions got more and more massive. They were even… crunchy? Made a raspy sound, they were so big.


The road was just ridiculously long.


Finally, Stonehenge came into view from the distance.


The approach by foot to Stonehenge via Amesbury does not lead you to a proper entrance, but rather a sheep gate. Basically they’ve built a massive fence around Stonehenge. Another important discovery we made as we finally got there at 6.30pm was that Stonehenge closes at 6pm. You must be thinking, how can Stonehenge close at 6pm, well before the sun sets? Well it does. It just does. I find it completely absurd that such a policy should stand. Its still there but someone says its shut at 6pm. It doesn’t mean you can’t walk up to Stonehenge or see it behind the fence, but the security won’t let you in, and attracted by us disturbing the sheep and walking up to fence, the security gravitated to us, as we pressed our sticky hands and faces between the gaps in the the human-sized fence.



We also bumped into some other eastern-european-sounding tourists trying to get in but also had been turned away.



Eventually I turned my attentions to chasing sheep. Unfortunately, sheep seem to be engineered to run away from people. So I did not get to touch any sheep.


And so that was how we not-visited Stonehenge, yet there it is, behind the construction sign…

Setting up “A Survey of the Singapore Psychogeographical Society” at Galerie Steph

A Survey of the Singapore Psychogeographical Society
by Debbie Ding

Opening Reception: 6 September, Friday, 6 – 9pm
The Artist will be present

Artist Talk: 7 September, Saturday, 2.30 – 3.30pm
On till: 12 October
Galerie Steph is pleased to present A Survey of the Singapore Psychogeographical Society by the young yet perspicacious artist Debbie Ding. The solo presentation brings together five series of works that serve as visual documents on and reflections of the urban environment she has lived in and travelled through.

Debbie’s interest in psychogeography has led her to investigate urban cities and its geographical environment to explore its effects on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. She renders mundane daily encounters in the city into a playful excursion – creating an opportunity to construct her own personal narratives against the anonymity that modernity engenders.

Galerie Steph cordially invites you to tread through the often taken for granted cityscape which Debbie recreates anew for us.

For more information, see:

Galerie Steph
39 Keppel Road
Tanjong Pagar Distripark #01-05
Singapore 089065
Tel: 9176 8641
Hours: Tues-Sat, 12-7pm
closed on public holidays


My solo show at Galerie Steph is opening later today at Galerie Steph – special thanks to Steph for exhibiting my work! Thanks also to Kamiliah for all her help in putting the show together, and thanks to Weilun and the Helutrans guys for setting up and hanging the work yesterday. The opening reception will be at 6pm later, and here are some images from the setup yesterday…









All ready!
My book, Dream Syntax, is also FINALLY READY and will be dispatched soon as well. Many thanks to Alvin from First Printers for the amazing job on the printing. You can still order it online within Singapore at, and on Monday I should be able to sit down and estimate overseas postage for those of you overseas so we can send orders overseas too!



Tilemill – Conditional Label Placement, Pseudo 3D Building Effects, and Polygon Patterns

Tilemill is an excellent tool for map design and development, which really provides ease of use through CartoCSS. For me, I think it is very accessible for designers/artists who might not have a clue about arc/gis but just want to design a map decently. Today I’m finalising the maps for my Paris Postdated project so I sat down to figure out a few things…

Conditional Label Placements

Microsoft Excel

I read a guide suggesting this method, which works. The funny thing is that I have not gotten it to properly “not overlap” in the past, and by setting it to “text-allow-overlap:false;” this usually results in NO LABELS at all. And in the end, sometimes I just want ONE or TWO labels to be done in another direction.


Solution: Created a new column called dir, and when dir = 1 it will be aligned to NW instead of NE.

Pseudo 3D Effects


Pseudo 3D effects can be gotten for buildings as well. If my data had building heights (which sadly it does not) then I could multiply my height value by the actual height of the building! In other words, instead of this:

#building { building-height:5; }

you could actually have this (where “height” is the field in for your building height):

#building { building-height:[height]*5; }

Basically, values drawn onto the maps can be derived directly from attributes in one’s data source. So there is some room to be inventive in how you map out the values. Seems to work for a number of fields such as marker-width and marker-height and building-height. Probably works for directions/orientation of labels if your data has that…

Polygon Patterns

Another way in which to add texture to the maps is overlaying a pattern file over polygons. You can make your own, or alternatively Subtle Patterns has a whole bunch of useful patterns which are very suitable for overlaying onto your maps.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 8.06.00 PM.png

There is a list of Compositing Operations (comp-op) available, including plus, minus, color-dodge, color-burn, invert, etc. You can use this to composite the pattern layer over the original colours selected, so the colours can be still fine-tuned live, along the way….

Map {

In addition to that, there is also polygon-gamma (which you can set to around 0.5-1 and which will help make polygons sit together more seamlessly) and polygon-pattern-alignment, which can be local or global. Local means its just for that polygon, global mean its aligned to the overall metatile instead of each of the individual polygons. Here is an example of Singapore with some patterns…

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 8.11.04 PM.png

Well that was bit tiny. Also, these are only very simple, design-related operations. I’m having more difficulties figuring out how to use PostgreSQL and PostGIS to clean up some stuff, but I thought I’d at least document the easy parts first!…

Dates and Numbers on Traffic Signposts along Rowell and Hindoo Road


Last week I went for a walk around the old neighbourhood in Little India, to take a better picture of a new sign of the Yangtze Scribbler which I had seen on National Day. I found two new signs along the grimy shophouse pillars of Jalan Besar, a main road with heavy traffic all day long – whilst doing my normal survey of the area. I also tried asking (chinese-speaking) people around the area if they knew anything about it, but so far no joy. Whilst I was there I also had a walk about to see if any other new signs of the Yangtze Scribbler had appeared closer to Victoria Street and Sungei Road, and had a series of very interesting finds……….


We’ll start small with the basic things that one always sees in the areas. There are many many numbers in the urban landscape. Numbers like these are ubiquitous in the area, especially on the shop houses along Jalan Besar.


These look like bloody fingerstains. Hrmmmmmmm.


This tiny paper sign which has been adhered to the pillar next to the bus stop on Jalan Besar Road (opposite Veerasamy Rd) reads: “Every night big gambling going on at bangkit road blk 259 in front 7-11 outlet. So far no action taken by the police. Is jurong police commander took bribe? SO NO ACTION TAKEN”. It is slightly strange for someone to make a complaint about Bangkit Road (ostensibly on the other side of the island, near bukit gombak) along a pillar on Jalan Besar (central). I’ve typed it out so it can be googled by others.




There are a lot of crack monitors to track the horizontal and vertical movements of cracks on civil engineering structures. Again, many many numbers, for their own tracking purposes.


And the reason for the need for all the crack monitors is the intensive construction work going on for the new downtown train line and the rehabilitation of Rochor Canal which has resulted in huge modification to the roads. In addition to that, a lot of drainage and PUB works have been conducted in the vicinity, resulting in some cracks appearing in many shophouses, many of which have had to be fitted with structural supports just in case.

Rochor Canal rehabilitation


More construction and road diversions on Jalan Besar

It was a hot afternoon, and everyone was hiding in the shade. I was determined to comb through the area thoroughly so as to be certain that I hadn’t missed out another sign from the scribbler…


Items hiding in the shade next to Sungei Road Market. A lot of people have started moving closer and closer to Jalan Besar and the housing block next to it, due to the reduction of space at Sungei Road Market. There are many of these carts along the road and sometimes even in the open sun.


On Hindoo Road, a new private security firm “Securitas” has erected a tiny shed next to a newly erected automatic carpark gantry. It leads to the multistorey carpark on Hindoo Road. I found this to be quite strange, as it means cars cannot pass through Hindoo Road anymore, without paying a carpark fee! I find that pretty annoying – I don’t mind if they erect a carpark gantry in front of the carpark entrance, but to erect it at the START of Hindoo Road – is that even legal?

When I was driving I would make the little turn into Hindoo to make a U-turn around the block, because Rowell is a one-way road so in order to turn into Rowell, one needs to make a turn in from Jalan Besar down either Hindoo (one-way, but opposite way from Rowell) or Veerasamy (two-way), and turn at Kampong Kapor and turn back into Rowell Road from the other end. Sure I could make the turn from Veerasamy but how is it that one can charge for the use of a road, just because it also leads down to the carpark?


What I eventually reached was this backlane between Rowell, Hindoo, and Jalan Besar, a shortcut I have taken countless times now. This is where an old chinese man sits and stacks up stuff. I could dedicate an entire post to pictures of what he has been doing over the last two years, I’ve taken loads and loads of pictures of what new things he’s stacked up every other day. He’s like an eccentric found-object artist putting together dioramas from scrap items in the area. Han told me he is actually not a homeless man, although he is frequently seen wandering around without shoes or shirt on the backlane. He’s apparently a very lively, energetic and slightly eccentric old chinese man who lives in the HDB block on Rowell Road, and is sometimes being chased by his family’s maid…



It was also another one of those moments where looking behind a box with a tiny crawlspace paid off. I’ve developed the habit of sometimes looking behind electrical boxes, especially in tight corners, because people do write stuff there. Lo and behold, there was this innocuous looking box, all clean and new from the front…

But behind it…


After seeing this, I also noticed there were MORE NUMBERS on the traffic sign posts in the area!





I ran up and down the road and realised they were on every traffic post!!!





I did not meet the old man of the road to ask if he was the one writing it, but suffice to say the person writing this is probably chinese and a bit older because of the use of traditional chinese script. It could very well be him. The writings mainly seem to be about dates and money. I’ll type it out and add the transcriptions to this post later. In the meantime, I’m open to people’s interpretations of what these are all about…

After my talk on wednesday at Fork, Dan suggested I check out if the Yangtze Scribbler’s numbers 160 / 95 / 55 or 160 / 95 / 58 were related to bus numbers. So I duly investigated it. Sadly there are no overlaps in the routes for the buses with those numbers, although I was initially excited to hear that 160 did start from Malaysia. 160 does not come to the terminal at Queen Street though.

Nevertheless, here are some screencaps of the map for each of the routes, using Busrouter-sg:

ROUTE 160:
Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 10.45.45 AM.png

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 10.46.10 AM.png

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 10.45.29 AM.png

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 10.45.06 AM.png

See also:

May 2013 – Yangtze Scribbler on Victoria Street
June 2012 – Yangtze Scribbler on Queen Street
April 2012 – Looking for the Yangtze Scribbler
Mar 2012 – Yangtze Scribbler on Victoria Lane
Flickr Set: More images of the Yangtze Scribbler
Singapore Memory Project Showcase – Tan Pin Pin’s short on the Yangtze Scribbler

The Giant Mangosteen of Sungei Punggol, and Water Wally’s Mysterious Friend

Recently, I went to the Sengkang Floating Wetlands to find the Giant Mangosteen, a giant fibreglass Mangosteen shelter in the middle of the Sengkang Riverside Park. Visiting the giant Mangosteen has been on my “bucket list” for some time now…


Promotional image by Public Utilities Board


The Real Thing


The Giant Mangosteen is located in an area flanked by numerous new Housing Development Board flats, all in various stages of completion. The park itself is curiously divided into two parts. Let’s just say that its not on the side with the Mushroom Cafe. Its on the other end, and in the middle of the water…


The Floating Wetlands has a walking path with lots of information on the various plants, animals, and the function of the wetlands in keeping the waters clean.


Cat Tails


Umbrella Plants


On the floating island of Sungei Punggol, I found an educational cartoon mounted on a signboard, featuring some familiar faces… and some less familiar faces…



I’m sure Water Wally is very recognisable, but who is this mysterious friend of his? What is she/he even supposed to be? A Soy bean? A… rock? A lump of mush? A wad of tissue? I checked Water Wally’s site but there was no mention of such a character. I mean, I don’t mind if they use cartoons to explain things and all, but I’d kinda like to know the position of all the characters. Like the logic behind it. Like who or what is having a conversation with what. Like why on earth is Water Wally going boating with this beige lump? Where did he come from? What is this? What is happening???


Leaving the giant Mangosteen….