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Smoke gets in your eyes

No smoke without ire as Indonesia is rapped for repeatedly flouting a ‘no smoking’ injunction. This all masks the real trends though...

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, December 2015

Archive photo of German soldiers in gas masks - the donkey is wearing a mask too

All dressed for the masked ball: Western tourists head to Indonesia in proper tropical attire

ANYONE who reached his hormonal head-banging teens in the early Seventies will remember that throbbing Deep Purple refrain, ‘Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky…’ We all belted it out passionately, few recalling it as music verite, an accurate portrayal of a fire in December 1971 at the Montreaux Casino where Frank Zappa was playing, on account of “some stupid with a flare gun”. The smoke literally spread across Lake Geneva as the venue burned to the ground.

This is perhaps not what farmers were singing in Sumatra and Kalimantan when they set about their annual dry season slash-and-burn forest clearing. The ensuing haze engulfed much of Singapore and Malaysia (closing schools, with readings of over 300 PSI) and affected parts of Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam and Philippines. By September 2015, six Indonesian provinces had declared health emergencies with an estimated recovery bill of over US$35 billion and the country’s unmistakable haze signature was starkly visible from outer space.

I travelled to Singapore to acquire that unique smoky flavour, best described as ‘rampant rainforest fire’, with lingering notes of car pollution, and melodic hints of tropical sweat, most intense around the armpits. I would have preferred hardwoods like Hickory or Mesquite, but this is what Indonesia serves up annually in what has become the biggest summer spectacle anywhere on the planet – despite have signed up in September 2014 to the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Well, beggars can’t be choosers so rainforest is what I sought and wore, with pride.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


It is the ultimate irony that Singapore, a nation that was among the first to crack down on smoking – and chewing gum – is regularly submerged in a choking haze of almost Dickensian proportions

It is the ultimate irony that a nation that was among the first to crack down on smoking – having resolutely banned gum earlier and blocked Japanese musician Kitaro at Changi Airport in 1984 for his excessively long hair – is regularly submerged in a choking haze of Dickensian proportions.

Outside the venerable Raffles Hotel, I sniffed the air and marvelled at the masks. It was all so very stylish, so intriguingly mysterious. Selfie-snappers prowled, unbowed, grinning behind the surgical wear at extended selfie sticks. Singapore’s mask-wearing craze was clearly copied from Hong Kong, which led the way during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

At that time the WHO said travel to Hong Kong should be avoided at all cost. I was in agreement. Travel to the enclave should have been free, I wrote then. Why pay when flights and hotels were resoundingly empty? You thought Singapore was clean but in those days Hong Kong people wore masks, washed their hands six times a day and any chicken that so much as wheezed, attempted to cross the road, or displayed sweaty armpits, was history. A million chickens thought they could get away with bad breath. They were wrong.

Singapore masks are pretty tame. I saw nothing like the monstrous Hong Kong N95 ‘monkey’ mask that fit snugly over the nose and mouth, its heavy duty fibres keeping out everything, from germs to fresh air and oxygen. Rightly, the N95 label cautioned: "Misuse may result in sickness or death. For proper use see supervisor or call 3M at 1-800-267-4414." You will agree, a mask that needs a supervisor and carries a toll-free number, has our instant respect.

I was not alarmed then at the shocked expression on commuter faces in the Singapore MRT. They'd simply inhaled their own breath for the first time. These were brave people at the frontline, more stout-hearted than Tennyson’s ‘six hundred’, who still ate garlic for breakfast. Of course, I’d seen this before and wondered what the effects might be after a kimchi binge or a major morning slurp of Katong Laksa. The images are too shocking to recount.

I take pride in Hong Kong being a trendsetter for a change instead of always chasing Seoul – for Too-Cool-For-School twaddle – or Japan, for strangely misspelled t-shirts and green tea ice-cream. Hong Kong was the creator of Asia’s first designer masks and we marched about the city braving sneezes and sniffles. SARS came and went but we still wear masks at the slightest pretext. Now others are emulating our style. Opium? Ah well, maybe not.

Or perhaps Southeast Asia wishes to catch up with China, and what better than to emulate Beijing where on a clear day you can see the tip of your nose. Chinese haze though is a different animal and far more costly to recreate as it is dependent on burning fossil fuels on a massive scale. Far too much for a small city like Singapore to whip up on its own.

So as mask-wearing fashionistas start emerging in Singapore, Samui and Mindanao for their seasonal pirouette, they’ll have to thank Indonesia for so generously sacrificing its bio-diversity to ensure the show goes on; and Hong Kong, for demonstrating how it is possible to have really bad teeth yet take a scorcher of a selfie – with a mask, of course.


Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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Julia Bleeker (12 December, 2015) – UK
At first I thought this was going to be a serious take on climate. Then I did a double take. A hilarious piece and brilliantly written.

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