Student Life

How one university student traveled Southeast Asia in the midst of a pandemic

My coronavirus experience, live from my Singapore dorm

Stuck inside drawing rainbows and perfecting the way I’m going to write “Ça va bien aller” for my neighbours to see, I have to admit I’m quite envious of how most East Asian governments handled the COVID-19 crisis and kept the number of cases to fractions of those in Canada, despite dealing with it for over four months.

As early as the first week of January, when I first landed in Singapore with a passport in one hand and a flyer about the “Wuhan pneumonia” in the other, the country where I would be spending my exchange semester was preparing for the worst. Upon receiving my student ID on my second day here, I was also given a card with important phone numbers on it and a digital thermometer. “Use this thermometer to monitor your health status,” the note in our welcome pack read, along with an invitation to visit the campus clinic if we felt unwell.

At the time, I think it’s safe to say most of us brushed it off. Most exchangers I met were still giddy about arriving and making new friends. My paranoid roommate was the only person who seemed genuinely worried about crossing paths with anyone who had come from Wuhan or Hubei (it seems you were right, Sarah).

The news of the first four cases of the virus in Singapore scared everyone: on January 27, my school announced that they were turning one of the residence halls into a Government Quarantine Facility. An estimated 400 students—neither the school nor the media gave an accurate number—were given less than 10 hours to pack up their stuff and apply for housing elsewhere.

Around 80 per cent of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the Chinese New Year period rolled around and people started traveling in and out of China to visit family, quickly making Singapore the country with the second highest number of cases recorded. About a week later, on February 7, the government announced it was raising the risk level of the disease to DORSCON Orange; that’s the way Singapore assesses diseases and how dangerous they are. Created as a preventive measure after the devastating SARS outbreak in 2003, DORSCON literally just stands for Disease Outbreak Response System Condition.

By this point, with 29 recorded cases, three of the four classes I was taking moved online because they had more than 50 students. My professors were quick to announce changes in the syllabus to accommodate for online midterms and final exams. We were asked to check our temperature twice a day and to register it in the university’s online system; temperature-checking stations were set up in each dining hall, and faculties handed out free thermometers to students who didn’t own any. We were also asked to declare all recent travel online, including the flight numbers and arrival times.

At this point, it became impossible to find hand sanitizer and surgical masks anywhere. Contrary to Canada, though, supermarkets ran out of ramen packets before they did toilet paper.

Outside of school, temperature-checking and contact tracing became more and more rigorous: I couldn’t enter a mall or library unless it was confirmed I didn’t have a fever. Everywhere I went, I had to scan a QR code and enter my information in case I came into contact with someone who was infected and needed to be tested.

Despite—or rather because of—all these new regulations, I never felt unsafe going about my days in Singapore. I didn’t become weary of anyone who coughed (most people were wearing masks anyway), I didn’t feel the need to use hand sanitizer every minute (though it was distributed absolutely everywhere), and I wasn’t anxious about entering crowded stores or restaurants. The most ludicrous measure I encountered was the routine temperature checks they started performing before I entered a bar or club, right after they had checked my ID.

To any diehard Westerner, these seem like incredibly intrusive procedures. But they were implemented so seamlessly that it really felt, and still feels, like they were necessary in order to maintain a relatively normal life. I think they were necessary to preserve everyone’s freedom and to keep the country running.

Singapore’s economy never tanked as a result of these measures: their currency, which used to almost be up to par with the Canadian dollar, even surpassed it for a little while.

It pains me to see how fast the virus has spread in the West, and how quickly the cases add up every day. I’m thankful for everything the federal and provincial governments in Canada are doing to contain it, but there have been so many unnecessary deaths as a result of careless preventive measures. After one of my friends came to visit me during spring break, no one in Canada checked her symptoms or her travels. She could have walked in with a fever and customs still would have greeted her with a simple “welcome home, Lorenza.”

I wrote this piece on my last day in quarantine. I had gone on a weekend trip to Ho Chi Minh City in mid-March, right as my university and the government announced stricter quarantine rules for those coming back into the country. The virus was thought to have reached its peak in Singapore a long time ago, but it’s fair that they wanted to prevent it from coming back into the country. I could complain as much as I want about having to be stuck in my room for 14 days, and about the terribly bland food they brought me twice a day to keep me inside. But at the end of the day, I understand why I’m the one who had to quarantine: it’s so that everyone else doesn’t.

Update: About two and a half weeks after I got out of quarantine in early April, the government finally put a “circuit breaker” into place. Short of calling it a full lockdown, it’s been a shutdown of non-essential businesses and a ban on public social gatherings with advice (read: threat of heavy fines and jail time) to stay home. Though it was set to last until May 4, an extension until June 1 was approved shortly after I left Singapore. The reason for this sudden change? A surge in unlinked cases after weeks of having the outbreak under control. To Singapore, these cases are the most dangerous because they make it difficult to track the disease and keep it under control. I guess this really is a new normal for everyone in the world, so stay safe and healthy!






Feature graphic and doodles by Rose-Marie Dion.

Footer graphic by Taylor Reddam.


What Montreal can learn from art and architecture abroad

Reflecting on the place urban spaces hold within a community

I did not expect art to be the main takeaway from my trip to Singapore and Malaysia this reading week. It’s not that I thought that I wouldn’t see any art, but rather I didn’t think it would be much different from the art in Montreal. I was wrong.

Upon meeting me at Changi airport after my 23-hour flight, my friend immediately dragged me, luggage in tow, to Singapore’s Chinatown for lunch. We exited the metro and a couple of minutes into our walk, stumbled upon Mid-Autumn Festival by Yip Yew Chong. Composed of vibrant reds, oranges and blues, the mural depicts a family feasting on fruits and cakes as lanterns shine above them and children play in the near distance. I was so mesmerized by the colours and overall narrative that I made sure to return after we had eaten, just to be sure I had taken it all in.

In Singapore’s Little India, Cattleland 2 by Eunice Lim comes to life via augmented reality. By scanning a nearby QR code on their phone, the viewer is invited to watch as the cattle roam through the colourful streets of Buffalo Rd. In an interview with SG Magazine, Lim explained that she had spoken to former residents who “gave her their anecdotes of seeing the old street filled with buffaloes running around.”

Glancing up at the commercial buildings and observing the whole of the city, I began to notice the presence of greenery within the architecture and urban spaces. Rooftop terraces are not uncommon throughout Singapore. In fact, the addition of green spaces is part of the country’s goal to become the world’s “greenest city.”

At Gardens by the Bay, infrastructure is purposely built in an effort to increase energy efficiency and visitors are invited to enjoy public art and sculpture all while being outdoors. At night, people can view a temporary installation titled #futuretogether by teamLab collective. Composed of floating egg-shaped lights, viewers’ interaction with the ovoids alter the speed at which they change colours, ultimately, illuminating the bay in bright purple, turquoise, yellow and red.

Along the Melaka River in Malaysia, houses and boutiques are entirely covered in urban art. Each mural pays homage to a different cultural group and their respective histories in Malaysia. The works are unattributed, however, clearly intentional and not to be mistaken for vandalism. As with much of the street art in the rest of Melaka City, a large Chinese influence is present; a cartoon depiction of a guardian lion painted in red hues makes up most of the mural on one residential building. Nearby, murals portray scenes of people dancing in traditional dress.

Reflecting on the art further into my trip, I realized I was not so much enthralled by the artworks themselves, but rather what they represented. It is no secret that Montreal’s street art is not exactly representative of the city’s complex history. To see Singapore, a country with a complicated history and political system, and Malaysia, a developing country, make the effort to get the population to engage within these urban spaces was eye-opening, to say the least.

Montreal’s year-round climate is not quite like the 37 ºC that I basked in for the last two weeks of February. It is understandable that outdoor garden sculptures are not the most feasible public attraction in a city where sub-zero weather lasts for over half of the year. Accurate representation of Montreal’s history, Indigenous population and minority groups, however, definitely does not require an ideal temperature. Montreal, you have some work to do.



Photos by Lorenza Mezzapelle


World music review: Asia

7he Myriads (Russia): If you think space disco is a kind of theme party thrown by Russian cosmonauts, then you’re missing out on quite possibly one of the most enjoyable new hybrid genres, and the dual-continental band positioned squarely at its forefront. 7he Myriads, formed by Vitalic Teterin and Alexey Krjuk in 2007, are more than just an electronic group. Adding Yunusov Ilgiz to the band, the Ekaterinburg (Asia) natives draw upon disco, funk, deep house, rock and electro, while combining live instrumentation with electronic staples like the ever-trusty laptop and MIDI keyboard. Now based in St. Petersburg (Europe), the intergalactic rock threesome released their debut album ∞ in 2010 and an EP, Running Man, soon after. Although they haven’t released another album since, they’re constantly updating their SoundCloud online where you can stream almost 30 tracks for free.

The Raghu Dixit Project (India): Combining traditional Indian vocal styles and instrumentation with unconventional musical styles including funky basslines, reggae rhythms and crisp, clean electric guitar, the Project is more than just a name—it’s an “open-house” for musicians and artists to come together and express their craft, regardless of genre, style or nationality. While the majority of his music is inspired by Shishunala Sharif, a saint from Karnataka, India famous for his poetry, Raghupathy Dixit’s lyrics, which are mostly in his native tongue, speak to the masses and deal with everyday experiences and emotions. The self-taught composer and musician believes Indian folk music is not a genre, but a state of mind. “We’re all untrained musicians,” said Dixit on his website, “and singing a song, because it’s innate, is a basic instinct.” The RDP’s debut self-titled album, available to stream online, includes eight full-length tracks that were composed over the past 12 years. The quintet that currently makes up the Project also has a new album in the works.

Morphy (Singapore): This collective, represented by vocalist and guitarist Lilia Yip and supported by Eugene Wong on synth and bass, lead guitarist Alexius Cai and Chua Yingtze on percussion, is not for those who enjoy mainstream folk music. The ambient, electronic, folk-pop band melds genres and risks melding your mind with their psychedelic ambient potpourri of sound. Stepping beyond electronica, the band uses traditional instruments from all areas of the world, including the wooden folk flute, and the African thumb piano, also known as the mbira. Their seemingly rule-free composition stems from their open approach to their music, inviting musicians from all corners of the globe to contribute to their sound. Their first album Pink Ashes (2004) set the pace for what was to come in their 2010 release Just Like Breathing, which featured U.K. guitarist Timothy Lloyd. Their presence in the scene, however, is reminiscent of their music—rather ambient—so if you want to hear them, you’re going to have to do some digging.

Kabul Dreams (Afghanistan): Here in the Western world, the music market is oversaturated with rock bands trying to make it big. Afghanistan’s first rock ‘n’ roll band, Kabul Dreams, is only three years old. They have become somewhat of a novelty on a global scale, purely due to the fact that they’re the first ever in their country, but don’t let that stop you from giving them a listen. While their sound ranges from generic to melodic, they do have talent and a whole lot of gusto. As the self-proclaimed voice of Kabul youth, their ciphers deal with post-Taliban messages of peace, unity and love. Groovy. Although the trio lived outside Afghanistan during Taliban rule—singer Sulyman Qardash in neighbouring Uzbekistan, bass guitarist Siddique Ahmed in Pakistan, and drummer Mujtaba Habibi in Iran—they moved back to Afghanistan once the Taliban was removed from power. What’s interesting about these three Afghan boys is that they come from different areas of the country, so they all speak a different native language. Instead of trying to work with that, they decided to sing in English.

Niraj Chag (England via India): This British musician of Indian descent has spent his life in London. His family’s strong ties to their heritage and homeland inspired him to create what BBC Radio 1 host DJ Nihal calls “some of the most beautiful British-Asian music ever created.” Chag composes in multiple languages, including six different languages on his debut album Along the Dusty Road (2006), after which he was awarded the “Best Underground Act” award at the U.K. Asian Music Awards. His next release, The Lost Souls in 2009, drove home this fusion artist’s talent, blending major South Asian styles with Hindi and by combining over 50 vocal layers on one track alone. The songs themselves are relaxed; it’s the type of music you can picture yourself listening to while smoking fragrant Mu‘assel from an ornate hookah in some tucked-away lounge amongst the crowded streets of New Delhi.

Eli Walks (Japan): Producer extraordinaire Jeff Lufkin has long had his hands in Japan’s thriving popular music scene—it’s a family affair. Both of his sisters are established musicians; Olivia is a fairly successful J-pop songstress, while Caroline is a vocalist for indie rock’s Mice Parade. Lufkin had an early affinity for heavy metal, but after his sisters introduced him to electronica à la Kraftwerk and Massive Attack, he searched for a method that would allow him to meld the two, and found it in club music. Lufkin worked as a producer, guitarist and composer in Japan, but moved to L.A. and birthed the moniker Eli Walks, as he studied sound design, engineering, and mastered Ableton Live at the California Institute of the Arts. His 2012 debut, Parallel, is delicate yet abrasive, overlapping atmospheric dance music. This is music to fill your ears; it works equally as an isolation soundtrack/solo travel companion or setting for a chill, alternative dance floor. He will make his Fuji Rock Festival debut this summer alongside the likes of Radiohead and the Stone Roses.

BoA (South Korea): K-pop girl groups have steadily grown in popularity, breaking into Western and Japanese music markets on the heels of BoA (Beat of Angel), or Kwon Boa, the reigning “Queen of Korean Pop Music.” BoA’s dance electropop first hooked South Korea in 2000 after she caught agents’ eyes while accompanying her older brother to a talent search. In 2002, she became the first South Korean musician to break Japan since the World War II entertainment trade embargo, opening the doors for girl groups like the Wonder Girls and 2NE1. BoA secured a fan base in the U.S. with the 2009 release of her self-titled English debut album and after spending much of 2010 touring the states and promoting her single “Eat You Up.” The pop starlet is it still maintaining her presence in Japan and South Korea, but is also set to make her Hollywood debut in the dance flick COBU 3D, so brace yourself for a K-pop invasion.

Modern Dog (Thailand): As the victors of the Coke Music Contest in 1992, college mates Modern Dog were instantly thrust into a world of bright lights and flashing cameras to sell over 500,000 copies of their debut album. Their introduction to the Thai music market may seem near effortless, but their sound was over a century in the making. For years, Thailand borrowed music from its neighbours India and China, resting at a crossroads of traditional Greek and Roman trade routes. But Thailand’s popular music format, known as “string,” wasn’t developed without the influence of American R&B, shipped overseas courtesy of American and Australian soldiers serving in Vietnam. Modern Dog broke through the sticky sweet boundaries characteristic of string and brought heavier, American influenced experimental rock featuring English and Thai lyrics. With That Song (2004), produced by Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian), and a 2006 U.S. tour, they tried to break into the Western world, but failed to gain much steam. Still hailed as the leader of Thailand’s indie rock music scene, Modern Dog paved the way for alternative rock’s presence in popular Thai music and have sold over two million albums to date.

Hedgehog (China): Despite China’s well-documented, swelling population, it has never been considered a major producer or consumer of popular music. Due to state restrictions, cantopop and mandopop commercialized love ballads pollute the radio waves, for an alternative hasn’t yet broken into the mainstream. Inspired by Western bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, a black/thrash metal scene developed among youth in the ‘90s, and heavy rock music has now grown in popularity in Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing’s Hedgehog was born out of those same punk/grunge roots, and they developed a fan base playing shows underground in 2005. Fans now flock to their shows to see Atom, the petite yet aggressive female percussionist, peeking through a mop of hair, behind a towering drum kit. The guitarist, Zo, sings most lyrics in Mandarin and English, and they recently recruited a new bassist, Xiao Nan, for their 2011 U.S. tour with Californian synth pop collective Xiu Xiu. Hedgehog recorded their upcoming 2012 release, Sun Fun Gun, in New York with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s John Grew and Russell Simins, and the album’s first single is now available for free download on Bandcamp.

Hiromi Uehara (Japan): Hiromi Uehara is known as one of the world’s most talented, game-changing musicians for her ability to bring raw, emotional rock to the piano—a relatively peaceful instrument. She began playing the piano at six years old, joined the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at 14, and has now broken into the more mainstream alternative Western market. Hiromi first worked as a jingle writer in Japan, but travelled to the United States to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study jazz piano. Since the release of her debut album, Another Mind (2003), she has travelled the world, developing a reputation for her inventive, high-energy fusion of classical and hard rocking jazz. With the Hiromi Trio Project, she will bring her latest release, Voice (2011), to this summer’s Fuji Rock Festival and both Montreal’s and Toronto’s jazz festivals.

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