Friday, April 20, 2007

A Corsetière's Saga

“You must try on this bra! Then I can determine how it fits you.”
Simple words. An everyday occurrence in the lingerie shops. Ah, but this was no ordinary lingerie shop that my girlfriend and I found ourselves in. This was the crème de la crème of French lingerie purveyors – Chalone.
But first, a little background. My girlfriend is a plus-sized woman, a “big girl” in our parlance. With plus sizes come big busts, and therein lies the problem. If that wasn’t enough already, Mother Nature has to complicate matters further. You see, when Nature endows, She doesn’t make it symmetrical. It is a known fact that if you have a pair of something – anything – they will never, ever, be exactly the same, i.e. your right arm will not be a mirror image of the left. We men know (we do, don’t we?) that our left testicle is slightly larger than the right and it descends lower as well. So it is with the female breast. One will be slightly larger (or smaller, depending on how you look at it) than the other. In my girlfriend’s case, the difference is noticeable.
Thus commences the Bra Saga. Having traipsed through countless shopping expeditions with her in search of The Perfect Bra, I have come away enlightened, educated, infinitely amused, and with a treasure-trove of memories to savour for posterity.
Beginning with the basic premise that my girlfriend is lop-sided, the Saga begins with fitting for the larger breast. Add to that the fact that she is big – 40D/42D – and you are looking at real problems. What problems? you say. Well, to start with, the local shops appear not to cater for the plus-sized woman. It seems everywhere we go, we are tormented by gorgeous, lacy bras, that stop at size 36D, or 38B if Lady Luck happens to be smiling on that particular day!
Now for a man, I am considered to be extremely well-informed about bra and cup sizes. And by the way, cup sizes refer to the fullness of the breast as the images accompanying this post will show. (Many thanks to the person who supplied these images and who kindly allowed for them to be used! You have my eternal gratitude!) So to encounter bras that stop at size 36D is nothing short of sacrilegious! Are Singaporean women truly that tiny? Are we a nation of petites? Definitely not, as you will see the “Pirelli tyres” jouncing along Orchard Road any day. Or the occasional woman bursting out of a bra or top that is wasting its time trying! And then there are the expatriate women – where are they obtaining their bras from? Surely it is too much of a hassle to order in, even though the Internet is a rich source – or do I stand corrected?
The men aren’t spared this either. A recent campaign by Triumph entitled “The Men Do Get It” aims to educate men who fight shy of purchasing intimate apparel for their girlfriends/wives. It is an evening where men, and only men, are allowed into the lingerie department. There, assisted by knowledgeable assistants, they make informed and no doubt “tasteful” purchases for the women in their lives.
It’s a start, one supposes. I myself am tickled pink at the lengths it will take for a man to come to terms with what his wife/girlfriend wears under her clothes. Not to mention there are the added complications of underwiring, padding and the lack thereof, of balcony and full cup bras, moulded cups, tulip cuts and extenders – the list is endless. In all fairness, my girl laughs at me whenever I complain that the men’s underwear section here does not cater for us unfortunates endowed with large genitals. I am often heard to lament about “fallout” – a term we use regardless of whether the subject at hand is an inadequately supported bust, or improperly contained penis and testicles. So fair’s fair in love and war – Bra Wars that is!
Now a new and major player has entered the Bra War arena: Avon. Avon? I can just see the quizzical and furrowed brows. Should you be thinking that this is the same Avon who supplied cosmetics in the pre-war era of the 1940s, of little old ladies with faces disarmingly over-rouged and Aspercrèmed, toting their little blue bags, then you’re not very far out. Except that in Millennium Singapore, Avon has become a multi-level company touting everything from cosmetics to perfumes, from bras to supplements, and even curtains! What hasn’t changed is that you still obtain your Avon goodies from the “Avon Ladies”. And only from them.
So these days, we no longer shop in the major department stores for bras only to be disappointed in the long run, although we still sneak a peek for kicks. We still talk of cups, underwiring and padding. We still drool over bras frothy with lace. But instead of the shops, it’s within the pages of the fortnightly Avon Catalogue (or Campaign as its known). That much remains the status quo. I’ve recently begun taking eurycoma longfolians (better known as tongkat ali or Ali’s Walking Stick), technically illegal in Singapore but I’ve seen it in the pharmacies disguised as a vitality supplement for men. I can assure you the only vitality it’ll invoke is “down there”. My girlfriend’s answer to this is kacip Fatima – a rainforest herb purportedly used for women’s wellness. Dig a little deeper into the research however, and a more covert result is promised! Both products are readily available from Avon, are a far cry from the “Avon cosmetics” of the past, and have catapulted the company well into the 21st century!
So whither the Bra? Fashion seems to have the last word, or should I say, the last laugh. I myself cannot fathom how a dress or blouse can hang on the flat chests currently in favour among the jet set of Singapore women; more on this subject in a later post. Some of the more enlightened women claim that they are so as their boyfriends cannot abide large breasts. They should be advised to seek a boyfriend with a correspondingly sized penis! Avon notwithstanding, at the end of the tunnel are the words of New York Times columnist Anne Hollander: “Breasts have lost much of their mythological aura and acquired some needed reality. … Emphasizing breasts is too great a pleasure to abandon.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why Can't The English Teach Their Children How To Speak?

So exclaimed Professor Higgins, when despairing of Eliza Dolittle’s inability to conquer her Cockney. Today’s Singaporean, whether young or old, doesn’t conquer Cockney. Rather it is Chinglish/Malglish/Tamglish that has triumphed over them!
Some explanations are in order. Approximately two decades ago, the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” was launched. ‘We are in danger of losing our Chinese-ness’ trumpeted the campaign slogans. And so for many years, Mandarin was relentlessly pursued to the exclusion of all else. Dialects were ruthlessly extirpated, much to the horror of the older generation. Now at the turn of the millennium, it seems that English is having the last laugh for we are smack-dab in the midst of a “Speak Good English” campaign – with billboards and decorated buses extolling proper English usage complete with examples!
Somewhere along the lines, the powers-that-be and the originators of the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” have neglected (overlooked perhaps? though I think not) the blatant fact that (a) Singapore is polyglot and English is the glue that binds, (b) English is the dominant language of the educational system – we certainly profess to be conducting the GCSE examinations, both ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, here, and (c) we are aiming to be a global city with a large influx of foreigners (read “Westerners”).
All this has yielded an amusing result – children and youth who are proficient in neither tongue, i.e. neither pure English nor pure Mandarin, but a nauseating mongrel which detractors have termed “Chinglish”. If you noticed the graphic that accompanies this post, that is a classic example of Chinglish with more than a fair dollop of Singlish thrown in for good measure (pressed down and shaken together). Which, by the way, was a snippet overheard in an exchange between two adolescent female students from a top-ranked academic institution on the MRT en route home. For purposes of diplomacy and in deference to free speech, that school cannot be named here in my post. It can be identified if I reveal, on dit, that the girls wore emerald green skirts with white blouses, think they’re God’s gift to Man, and the institution occupies a prominent lot in the Bishan area.
When I was in school, English held pride of place. We spoke Mandarin only to our language teachers, and only in the designated slots within the curriculum. Today, Mandarin has become the lingua franca of even salesladies in posh boutiques selling French designer apparel – quelle horreur! A recent survey of local undergraduates in an English class at the British Council failed to unearth a single grammatical sentence! And then there are the pronunciations! However, I must convey my heartfelt thanks to the MediaCorp Studios production team for correcting my faulty French pronunciation. As a French speaker I was taught that couture was pronounced “koo-’ter”, or its accepted Anglicized version, “koo-’chure”. After watching the trailers for Project Runway’s Season 3, the faultiness of my pronunciation was brought up short after listening to the voiceover – “KER’er-‘cherr”. MediaCorp, a French-speaker offers you eternal gratitude for the correction!
Even the media is not spared. Signs abound proudly featuring mangled English – of the “Ladies can have fits upstairs” variety; mispronunciation is rampant here too, and not just of foreign languages. Oh no dear sir, I’m speaking of good old English! Just the other day I heard a voiceover on the many trailers and advertisements our free-to-air channels are deluged with ad nauseam, hailing the “preh-meeee-airrrrre” (premiere) of a movie spectacular, the rest of said voiceover delivered in orotund, gloriously overdone and fruitily plummy vowels. Or how about a mini-trailer waxing lyrical about Oprah? I was nonplussed until I realized the subject being discussed was opera, or more specifically, Chinese opera - wayang.
And then there’s The Arena. How could we forget The Arena? MediaCorp’s latest stab at resurrecting the Debates of yesteryear. Listening to pretentious 14-, 15- and 16-year olds attempting to deliver arguments and repartee, all wrapped up in haughty, overdone accents is amusing if one has a taste for masochism. I didn’t. After a bare 20 minutes of such tripe I found I could not face dinner. Maybe the slimming establishments could take note – watching The Arena is good for curbing appetite as I’ve discovered food held zero appeal after an episode.
Returning to the subject at hand, how came we by this sad state of affairs? There is an underlying reason for this – everything must have a reason, naturellement? In the late 80s, not long after I left school, some “expert” in the Ministry of Education postulated that English Grammar was a dinosaur. This person – I still can’t figure out if it was a he or she – then purported that students were far better off learning how to use English naturally, as opposed to dissecting sentences with lost causes such as Past Participle and Present Continuous Tense. Thus it came about that the English syllabus was rewritten in 1991 to accommodate a more “organic” approach to the learning and usage of English. This brainchild was named CLUE – Course for the Learning and Usage of English. In my honest opinion, it was utterly clueless!
“Aye, there’s the rub” as Hamlet would say. It would seem that learning English the “organic” way works in the West as there, English is the natural speech modicum. In Asia, and especially Singapore, however much we profess to globalization, the average parent speaks to his/her child in Mandarin (“Thank YOU ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’!”). Now a whole generation of Singaporean children and youth speak the mongrels of their race, be it “Chinglish”, “Malglish” or “Tamglish”. So if I speak, or seem to speak in exclamation marks, it’s because we are seeing a tidal influx of youth whose ideas of class are speaking fragmented, rudimentary English with an affected accent. If ever there was a sound reason for reviving the guillotine this would win hands down!
Some time ago, a young and pretentious schoolteacher of dubious English provenance sought to loudly question the fact that local children spoke appalling English. My riposte was that it should come as no surprise, as for them, English is relegated to fourth or fifth precedence. She, of course, demanded to know the reason for this; and was duly offended when I answered: “Well, first and foremost are all the vulgarities. Naturally, they have their dialects, usually one or more if their parents are from different clans. Then comes Singlish. After that is Mandarin because of the Mother Tongue movement. And finally there’s English if they have a mind to it!” She was mortified and I say serves her jolly well right!
I think I’m better off speaking Esperanto!