Archive | March 2014

Brigadier General Rudi Pirngadie, the Kroncong General of Indonesia

The other day I picked up some 33 1/3 albums of kroncong music on the Evergreen label that I’m excited to listen to. I’ve got about half-a-dozen of these albums of strange and beautiful music from late 1960s Indonesia, but I’ve only digitized two of them (links below). I’ll get around to digitizing and uploading the rest eventually.

I wrote about the Evergreen label a few years ago in the now defunct and sorely missed Signal to Noise magazine.

‘As I would learn, this label was active in the 1960s and was the love child of Brigadier General Rudi Pirngadie, who had a hand in producing each of the releases. Each album on Evergreen followed the patriotic theme of arranging popular music from across Indonesia for an orchestra comprising both Western and indigenous instruments as well as a full chorus, and backed by a kroncong beat. A few Evergreen titles will serve for illustration: Songs of the Moluccas, in Krontjong Beat; Songs from Minang, in Krontjong Beat; even Reveries of the Independence War, in Krontjong Beat, and the politically provocative Songs of the Peninsula, in Krontjong Beat. [NB: the old spelling from before Bahasa Indonesia language was standardized.]
‘The Evergreen releases were ostensibly meant to share the folk music of Indonesia with the world, though the political undertow of the general’s project is evident in the liner notes: “Krontjong Beat music reflects the motto on the Indonesian Coat of Arms: Unity in Diversity.” According to ethnomusicologist Craig Lockard, Pirngadie eventually became known simply as “General Kroncong.” If the music on the Evergreen releases is anything to go by, the orchestral kroncong that the general believed would unite the nation was to be beautifully recorded in sparkling stereo and simultaneously evocative of both the space-age and a tiki-torch lounge: Les Baxter, eat your heart out. Unfortunately, Pirngadie’s “Krontjong Beat” project was ultimately derailed not so much by Indonesia’s political upheaval but because the music on the albums was too Western for the local audience and too exotic for the foreign audience.’

Here’s the links to the albums on my youtube channel. There are more Evergreen releases on other youtube channels if you look around for them. I’ll upload my other Evergreen records once I get them digitized.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

The Cincinnati Kid, Norman Jewison.  What should have been a vehicle for Steve McQueen is amplified then validated with a soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin (including vocal by Ray Charles) and a Terry Southern co-credited screenplay (he wrote and orchestrated most of the critical card-game sequences), shot on location in New Orleans . The three-act script is strictly by the book, the characters cardboard, but the acting shows what Hollywood used to be capable of even with modest effort. McQueen got the top billing but in a cast of A-list character actors (Rip Torn, Karl Malden, Joan Blondell), the pretty boy is largely over-shadowed. Ann-Margret hots things up as a juicy femme fatale. Her curves dominate her scenes—like she stepped out of a Russ Meyer picture. A fresh faced Tuesday Weld is mostly memorable for her improbable name (too bad Sharon Tate lost the part). But it’s seasoned veteran Edward G. Robinson that makes the movie. The man can strike fear and inspire awe with little more than a lit match and an eye-brow roll. Old and pot-bellied, he sports an immaculate Van Dyke and the razor sharp manners to match. (In his autobiography, Robinson says ‘It was one of the best performances I ever gave … it was symbolically the playing out of my whole gamble with life’.) The lack of a happy ending beyond a perfunctory hug is vintage silver screen—pessimism used to be ok. Pop culture bonus: extended Cab Calloway cameo as gambler ‘Yeller’.

Singapore Black available in paperback NOW!

My novel Singapore Black is finally available on in paperback!


It’s available NOW (earlier they indicated it would not be available until May, but it looks like it’s already available).


Interview with the ‘Elvis of Singapore’, Huang Qing Yuan

Back in 2009, I was researching for a book about the Chinese-Singapore pop albums I had been collecting. As part of that process, I tracked down the ‘Elvis of Singapore,’ Huang Qing Yuan. I interviewed him with my wife translating. That interview, about 60min long, is downloadable in its entirety at this link:

The book project transmogrified into a CD called Singapore A-Go-Go that was released on Sublime Frequencies and is still available. I had already drafted the introduction to the book that would have focused mostly on the album covers and much of that material wound up in the liner notes to the CD. While the notes were extensive, they were not exhaustive.

 Instead of letting the unused material just sit on my hard drive, I figured I’d post it here. So here’s the excerpt based on the interview.


[please also check out my interview with Siow Kee Lin of Fusan Records: ]


The Elvis of Singapore

A proud Singaporean by birth, Huang Qing Yuan (or as his name is sometimes transliterated on the record sleeves, Wong Ching Yian) began singing and performing in talent shows at the age of seven and continues to perform in lounges in downtown Singapore, though he now also acts as a manager to younger singers (he has used the same stage name his entire life). Dapper and gregarious, Mr. Huang met me before a show at the lush Topps Lounge, situated in a swanky downtown hotel, which has been his regular gig for several years. His voice is still robust, with a round fullness in his delivery of notes that borders on the operatic—in addition to a-go-go, Mr. Huang is also well known for his “sentimental” songs (his word). With a career spanning nearly forty years, he has recorded over 800 songs, often translating lyrics from other languages or Chinese dialects himself. He helped to usher in the a-go-go era and claims to have been the first to discover the popular instrumental guitar band The Stylers—he would perform with the band throughout the period. In the 1970s, when Sony launched its first color television set in Singapore, it asked Mr. Huang to sponsor the product. He appeared in a television advertisement that features him performing live in front of an array of Sony color TVs.


The Elvis of Singapore (as I often heard him called) would also lead tours of other popular Singapore-based performers into Malaysia, including the comedians Wang Sa and Yeh Fung as well as popular instrumental bands. They would put on live variety shows in Chinese communities—this not only helped to promote Singaporean music and stage acts, but would also prove vital in spreading the a-go-go sound beyond Singapore’s borders.


SE1014 (comedians Wang Sa and Yeh Fung)

Most of these activities were happening off the radar screens of the major recording labels (though EMI did press a few a-go-go records), leading to an incredible proliferation of independent record labels in both Malaysia and Singapore—at the height of the craze, dozens were producing a-go-go records. The two most popular labels in Singapore itself were Polar Bear Records, Panda Records (whom Mr. Huang often recorded with) and Sakura Records, none of which still exist, though Sakura Record’s parent company, Fusan Records and Radio, remains in operation—as an electronic and CD/DVD karaoke music store above a hawker center.





Treachery of Images

Search ‘this is not a pipe’ on google and this is what you get…

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Buñuel.  This one won the academy award for “best foreign language film.” Strange, because it’s the closest thing Bunuel did to outright surrealism since L’Age d’Or (1930). A group of affluent people attempt to dine together; each interrupted meal is an episode. One episode collapses into the next without any indication of who is narrating the stories; there is no beginning and no end though the film travels in a linear direction, or at least seems to; and while the ensemble of characters subtly shifts from one episode to the next, they never change beyond who they are—or are not. It’s one of the best explorations of the illogic of dream-time ever filmed, and even though it is not a horror flick, I know people it gave nightmares.

Ken Pattern

The other week I came across the work of Ken Pattern in a gallery in Kemang. His drawings and lithographs are stunning for both the precision of their execution and for their capturing of a world in flux. His depictions of traditional neighborhoods (most people would call them slums) in the dense conurbations of Southeast Asia, especially Jakarta, create images of striking juxtaposition. The glass-skin skyscrapers towering over banana groves growing in shared community spaces, women carrying water buckets on bamboo poles along narrow passages through urban kampungs, the refuse in the street contrasting with the skyline in the distance, the vegetation sprouting in verges and flower pots supple beside the straight lines of concrete buildings…this is what it is like to live in these cities, especially beyond the bubble of affluence.

Pattern’s drawing style (could an artist who works with fine lines have a  more appropriate last name?) is almost hyper-realistic and the images seem to vibrate with an intensity that elevates them beyond documentary and into lived experience. The trick, if there is one, is the density of his lines. In a world dominated by pixelated screens, experiencing an image based on line reorganizes the visual field in dramatic ways. His art stands between a folk tradition — the traveling sketch artist — and an old-fashioned technique of newspaper engraving, a kind of visual journalism that predates cameras. Applied to the modern age, the effect is mesmerizing, both an aesthetic experience and a record of a place in transition.

Check out the gallery on his webpage at

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Pickup On South Street, Sam Fuller. The Cold War meets film noir in this classic potboiler set in early 1950s New York. The main character, named Skip McCoy, is a pick-pocket with a face full of mean angles who doesn’t fight the bad guys for god and country but because he’s fallen for the pout-mouthed femme fatale with one name (‘Candy’—delicious), who turns out to have a heart of gold. He lives, totally improbably, in an old bait shack on the East River, and keeps his beer cold in a crate. The dialogue is mid-century crime Americana at its best: pickpockets are ‘canons’, the lead detective is nicknamed Tiger, and turn this phrase: ‘that muffin you grifted’. The low life patter is aided by the camerawork: lots of dolly shots rolling into and out of character faces as revelations unfold. Actress Thelma Ritter nearly steals the show as the professional stoolie ‘Moe’ – her death scene speech is straight out of Chandler’s hard-boiled playbook and Ritter cuts the bitterness with just the right amount of sweet . The big band soundtrack swings from smoochie to mysterious to melodramatic and back without missing a beat and is perfectly mixed with the visuals, enhancing without being obtrusive.  In his recent unauthorized biography of Tom Waits, Barney Hoskyns notes that the song ‘Potter’s Field’, from the 1977 album Foreign Affairs, was inspired by POSS, which Waits supposedly watched in a motel on late night TV during a tour. The sound of the film, and the phrase ‘potter’s field’, as well as some characters and narrative twists, all resonate in Wait’s cinematic song.

Here’s Luc Sante’s (a saint to me) essay about POSS on the Criterion Collection website:

Period trailer:

Tom Waits ‘Potter’s Field’:


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