This image features a stock image vintage illustration of espalier, the horticultural practice of training trees to grow a certain way.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


Drawing by Varsha

April 13, 2021
Dear Sharon

What I’ve always loved and wished for is a tamarind tree, and in late 2019 I met a grand old one, with a narrow bit of land attached. The tree commands the entire eastern side.

I’ve always believed you don’t own land and what stands on it, it’s just a contract of promise one makes to honour it whilst fulfilling a wish.

And, you certainly don’t own the tree – I told myself. The tree owns you. You owe it everything – your very being. The land and trees will be standing in one form or another well after you are gone…

What is ‘normal’, I ask. Are things the way they were, normal? Haven’t we been on our way to be gone for a while now? And what is the normal we hope to return to? The so-called ‘new’ normal? Pandemic or not, this tree springs forth shoots, flowers and offers tangy fruits as it has done for decades now and will continue to do so. Except not so with the talipot palm that grows nearby. Don’t know how old it is but this palm, also known as the shadow palm, tends to grow to be 70 or more with the knowledge that at the peak of its life, after it puts forth the largest single inflorescence ever and then scatters the fruit and seeds, it will start to die soon after. Its magnificent leaves will droop one by one covering the base like a faded old skirt until they all dry up. It takes a year or two – embracing death whilst still alive.

That too is normal. There’s nothing new about it.

“You have a preexisting health condition so don’t be reckless”, I am told repeatedly, “don’t be out and about unnecessarily”. Just like preexisting times – the ‘before’ pandemic ones – this preexisting health condition is not normal.

Going to visit the trees is….. very normal. Necessary even.

You introduced ‘your’ mangrove tree at your birthday gathering and I was so touched. There it was, a sure dark shape on my screen as the sun was setting into the sea lapping not far behind. They seem so fragile, mangrove trees, but so strong and stoic standing amidst a shifting landscape of sand, earth, movement of tide and time… and, this one with the refinery nearby belching out stuff. You did post photos of the flames.

Yes, as you so aptly put it, they endure and we feel compelled to visit for the reassurance they give. Especially in moments when all seems lost.

On one of these visits after last monsoon and during the lockdown, I planted some amaltas nearby thinking their golden showering flowers may be welcome. But they didn’t survive. That’s normal – in your mind you see budding bunches, in reality the sapling says: no, don’t like it here– and you learn from this – it’s not just about you.

I visited ‘my’ tree again today, and you tell me you visited ‘yours’. As you said, “You know what I mean when I say ‘yours’ and ‘mine’… not possessive, more like we belong to each other in a relationship, us and the trees.”

I want this to be set as the norm – that every human must enter into such a sacred relationship of visiting a tree or two as part of their routine.

What I also want is a courtyard at the far western end of the plot from where I can watch the changing light. And to see the tamarind blooming only to shed as it does seasonally, and continue to draw an expanding large circle underneath with a carpet of leaves and wilted bits.

I want to learn to draw this way – gaining by shedding.

… I want to be around to see days dawn…

I’d like for my knees to be strong enough so I can climb a bit into the lower branches and feel what it’s like to be in a tamarind’s belly surrounded by dense foliage. But I am not sure if I really want this – to climb. I mean, I do want strong knees.

I absolutely want the neighbour’s buffalos and goats to continue to poo around its trunk whilst they munch on the growing wilderness, and the visiting monkeys to chuck down pods from way up high.

Oh and I very much want for the solitude of the lockdown to return – the guilt free time of gaining much from going nowhere, doing little.

– Varsha Nair, Baroda, India


Image of Country Musik: Movements #13, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features stock image vintage illustrations of a cross section of a tree and a seismograph.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


Country music 的诠释是乡谣,其中一种音乐风格。它普遍定位于一个地区民族的音乐风格,也普遍定位于不插电乐器的音乐风格。突发奇想不妨换个诠释,不妨称它为国家音乐,每个世界角落国家的音乐。那它会有哪些歌曲为代表呢?就先说有语言歌唱的曲子吧。 英文歌,韩语歌曲等等所有国家的语言,琳琳种种地一瞬间,我刚刚称呼这世界角落的音乐就激增了无数的风格和歌曲。且慢,可以么? 这般规化很不对劲,这近十年的英文歌和韩语歌等等等可都是同在一个框架里,除了只是不同的语言但是音律音拍大致相同,请试想想成千上万抄来抄去的作文涌进作文比赛中,这哪是作文比赛啦,明明变成了错字罚抄比赛…

Country music stands for folk tunes, a kind of music genre. It’s generally characterized as the local music of a particular region, and by its unplugged sound. On a whim, why not shift the interpretation and call it national music, the music of every country in the world. What songs would be representative? Let’s talk about the languages the songs are sung in. English songs, Korean songs, the songs of all the world’s languages – in an instant, what I just called global national music brings up a multitude of songs and sounds. But wait a minute, this kind of categorization doesn’t make sense. In the past ten years, English songs, Korean songs, etc etc etc all sit in a similar frame – they may be sung in different languages, but the melodies and tempos are pretty much the same. Imagine millions of copied essays flooding an essay competition. Come on, essay competition? More like a typos and copying competition…

今时今日的科技被滥用成灾,很多人也太多人明明知道却还是依网览观看人数为据,不是先看内容…离题也不介意… 打个比如,唱歌比赛节目里的选手大部分都能唱,唱的也不是新创自创的歌曲,就没人在意歌手也不过是一首作品之一,再好的歌手也不能代表一首好音乐啊。多些交换效率的心得,少些打发无聊的时间。本就那么容易却又谈何容易。

Today’s technology is abused, and most people know it, but they still rely on the number of online viewers, instead of looking at the content… Let me digress a bit. For example, most contestants in a singing competition can sing, and what they’re singing isn’t new or original. Even if we don’t care who’s singing it, the song is still a great piece of work. No matter how good a singer is, they can’t replace a great piece of music. A little more exchange of sincere insights, a little less empty noise please. It IS that easy, but still, easier said than done.

世界角落里的每一种语言和每一种声音也是音乐,每一只鸟每一只蚁的移动也是,各有各自不规律的高呼低鸣混合了在这片大地,缺一不可,孤掌难鸣。世界角落有多少,本该就有多少音乐。

Every language and sound in every corner of the world is a kind of music, so too the movement of every bird and every ant, each with its own high pitch and low hum, mixing on this land. Every last one is indispensable, unable to make music on their own. There should be as many kinds of music as there are corners of the world.

很感谢我所有的朋友们,照顾和包容我的异想天开与异常啰嗦。在人生旅途上,亦师亦友的他们来自不一样背景的人们,他们就像不一样的曲类,一边弥补了我的无知一边坚定了我对自己能力。这群各自不同的声音不曾停止在我心里扎根,发酵,沉淀,绽放。盼望大家不停于现况,肩并肩同步走。有能力冲的冲吧,请记得要多歇一歇。至于还不能同步的朋友请追来吧,我们还在建造的路上等待着接力。

I’m very grateful to all my friends for taking care of, and tolerating, my whimsical imaginings and weird ramblings. On this life journey, these teachers and friends from different backgrounds are like different kinds of music, making up for my ignorance and strengthening my own abilities. These different voices never stop taking root, fermenting, settling and blooming in my heart. I hope everyone will keep facing ahead, walking side by side. Those who can sprint go ahead and sprint, but please remember to take a break. As for those who are still unable to synchronize, hurry up, we’re waiting for you on this road we’re constructing together.

我真心很期待这个万花齐放的新世代,每个角落都已经有不同的神通。让彼此都成为彼此的启蒙,相克相佐。

I really look forward to the blossoming of a new era. Different magical powers already exist in every corner. May each one be the enlightenment and complement of the others.

– Tan Kok Boon (English translation by Sharon Chin)


Image of Country Musik: Movements #7, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features stock image vintage illustrations of hand shadow puppets.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.



A friend once said to me many years ago: “Those who desire nothing have nothing to offer.” Although he and I have since fallen out, for some reason or other, his offhand comment (to which he later said he had no recollection of) stuck with me. 

Over time, it mutated into a kind of personal artistic mantra, with the implication that as an artist, I should always have desire (or a whole orgy of desires) in order to create. 

But it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that it irritates me: this constancy of wanting.

Those who practice asceticism say that desire will only lead to suffering, and that it should be the goal of every soul who seeks enlightenment to let go of all earthly desires. 

I wish I had the courage of spirit to go down such the so-called middle path. Alas, I’m no spiritual purist. My body remains irritated by wants and needs. 

Like everyone, I wish to love and be loved. To receive validation for one’s existence and achievements would be fucking amazing. To one day swim and dance with friends again would be heaven. 

But in order to have these things, so goes the strange logic of my personal mantra, I have to offer many things in return. In a way, this painting is one such offering.

It’s an interpretation of Janus, the Roman god of endings and beginnings, of passages and portals, of transitional periods. He’s an in-between deity, someone you pray to when you’re neither here nor there, which explains why he has two faces: one looking at the past, the other toward the future.

It’s a weird time to be alive. People sometimes say you never know what you have until you’ve lost it. But I think it’s ok to let things go; the unburdening of the spirit is something I think all of us can have more of.

– Jerome Kugan, Originally writer, musician, then artist


Image of Country Musik: Movements #3, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features a stock image illustration of a common gecko.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


Gratitude is easy when times are good. Now that a pandemic has upended our lives, it’s harder now to even accept this existence, much less having any gratitude for it.

Yet –

All things considered, I am privileged and comfortable. I have never experienced war, hardship or hunger.

The worst thing to have happened to my physical self is a botched snatch theft and two dengue fevers. And I’ll include intermittent fasting – a bit of a stretch – and I’ll allow you to mock me.

In the stillest of nights, I find myself digging deep for reserves. When dawn breaks, I find that I have nothing left because nothing is left to fill up the empty.

I’m long past waiting for things to “return to normal” because it never will.

What I want is to regenerate. I want to be the mint plant on my balcony.

I realised this after basking in the sun every morning.

I don’t even want to be a Redwood or a Meranti. I no longer have ambitions of being mighty. If I end up being a garnish in a bowl of laksa, or a spring roll, so be it. If I wither and die, I’ll return to the land.

I need to embrace the organic to regenerate mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. That’s all I have within my control.

And just for the sun rising, warming my face until it becomes slightly sticky with sweat, is all I am grateful for today.


Image of Country Musik: Movements #15, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features black & white product photos of Polly Pocket™ toys.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.



31st December 2020

Dear Chinese Hopping Vampires, Immobilized:

You are a pair of 28mm-scale geung si, made in pewter alloy. You came in a set of four.

Your siblings had vampire canines and arms stretched out menacingly. But you two had talisman paper stuck to your faces — so you stood stiff as old fence posts, poor and harmless.

Geung si minatures by John Jenkins Designs.

You were sculpted by John Jenkins Designs, a small tabletop miniature studio based in Hong Kong. John Jenkins mainly makes historical wargaming figures. Toy soldiers, essentially; hobbyists play out battles with formations and dice on felt-lined tables. They come unpainted; painting them is half the hobby. 

You were part of an unusual detour into Chinese fantasy: I remember there also being a mummy in a jade burial suit, and terracotta warriors.

A John Jenkins Designs jade mummy with his two terracotta warrior attendants, painted by Mr Saturday.

I don’t know who John Jenkins is. I may have emailed him? I vaguely recall. It was not so easy then, online shopping. No Shopee.

And no money. I was working my first job, and trying also to be a sophisticated almost-twenty-year-old. So of course I couldn’t afford shipping in USD.

Now it is too late. Finding photos of you took some searching. A forum thread from 2009 talks about how difficult it is to find images of you. You were taken off John Jenkins’ website, when you were discontinued.

+++

That I still want you says a lot, maybe. I could stick all sorts of metaphors and angsts to you two, like magic seals:

How I wanted to get you, but didn’t, and now it is too late — something something about paths not taken, opportunities not seized.

Regret, something something.

How I suddenly thought about you, again, today — nostalgia, I suppose? I’m still the twenty-something I used to be. I still want to spend all day hunched under a desk lamp, detail brush in hand; I still want to spend all night dancing.

Twilight Actiongirl 10th Anniversary Finale Party. Photo by Danny Lim, circa 2013.

Except now both my hands have RSI, and I can’t stay up all night, and I’ll be thirty-five.

How you are not-very-good figures — but this is exactly the reason I want you.

There’s just something about you two. Cute — not in a “Look imma cute monster” chibi-trope way; but cute because you were made with personal interest and perhaps some sentimentality.. Sculpted in putty and casted, by a hobbyist’s hand. Made before the 2010s. More: “Geung Si Sin Sang is so fun” and less: “jiangshi will fill a niche in the PoC-stories-and-monsters growth market”, maybe. Maybe.

Screenshot from Mr. Vampire (dir. Ricky Lau, 1985).

How I want to paint toy soldiers — this month I spent close to a thousand ringgit, money I still can’t really afford, buying new paints and new brushes and spray primer and plastic cement and a headband-mounted magnifying glasses.

Every few years I return to the hobby. I remember Rizal saying that my interest in miniatures reflected a desire for a smaller world.

I remember feeling defensive. But it was a true observation, made jokingly, not meanly. Rizal himself reared betta fish, as a hobby.

I want to look at you with magnifying glasses and 0-size brushes like I look at nearites in tide-pools and ant-trails on a long bean vine. Or at neighbourhood associations and local unions. Attention to smaller worlds — because the bigger picture never talks about its hegemonic assumptions, and doesn’t know how it is blind.

+++

Anyway. Chinese Hopping Vampires, Immobilized — I think you two are really cool.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have you. I’ll settle for the next-best thing: living a life where I can make things that make me feel like you make me feel.

Yours, wistfully,
Zedeck


Image of Country Musik: Movements #11, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features stock image vintage illustrations of grass.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


The mornings

The mornings always feel wild, somehow, 

like the world hasn’t fully turned 

to face us. We haven’t ruined it yet,

haven’t had the chance to plow

through with our desires, or forge 

paths we’ll later regret.

If I want anything, maybe it’s to sit

still, in that slow moment

as the sky arrives and birds call

out their business.

Maybe birds are petty in their own way.

Maybe they hurt each other without meaning to.

But the way they fill the air with messages –

they must know how to

listen, too.

I write poetry very rarely. I haven’t ever published a poem or even shared one on social media. (The closest I’ve come to showing people my poetry is when we had to write poems for school, on topics like Families and Seasons and Feelings. They would be written out by hand, then glued to a colourful border and pinned up on the classroom wall).

I wanted to share this poem with you, though. 

As I thought about “what I want” for 2021, I realised that what I had in mind was not so much a list, a goal, or an object – but a feeling.

There are many things I want, both big and small. But for several reasons, I’m paying more attention to the small things lately. 

It’s not that I don’t want to “think big”. It’s not that I stopped being ambitious. But I started to resent the idea of each new year being premised upon a checklist.  

Actually, I love lists. There are so many projects I want to complete. A novel, a short film, a screenplay, essays. But I don’t want the success of my year to be contingent on the success of my writing.

In 2021, I’d like to leave behind the notion that being productive is inherently good. I’d like to leave behind work that’s underpinned by insecurity and needing to “keep up”, or motivated by the fickle mirage of success and prestige.

A poem isn’t for anything, and it’s also for everything. Poetry always strikes me as a density of feeling, an attempt to translate a specific detail of being alive into words. In so doing, the form inherently asks us to accept failure. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always shied away from it.

So it felt right to share this poem here. 

I wrote this on a January morning, before the sun had come up. I was tending to my son, who wakes us up each morning before we’d like to be up. 

He is my daily work, and a reason why I’ve tended to smaller pleasures lately. This poem is an incantation for both more wildness and more restraint, qualities that I suspect I’ll need by the bucket this year. 


Image of Country Musik: Movements #17, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features a stock image vintage illustration of a swimming swan.

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


23rd December 2020

With much hope:

Dear all the trips I’ll take in 2021,

I won’t discriminate—short, long, near, far—I’m speaking to you all. How many of you will there be? I don’t know, cannot say, am unable to divine, shall not speculate upon. But I hope there will be many of you, even if they are wholly in my mind.

I’d like to make the weekly trip to campus and sit in a room with my coursemates and lecturers. Let that come to pass.

I’d like to make the more infrequent but just as valuable jaunts to museums, galleries, libraries, archives, collections. First they have to be open and that means case counts have to drop. Let that come to pass.

I’d like to wander into alleyways and antiquarian shops and second-hand booksellers without worrying if I’m about to breathe in a viral load and regret my decision. Let that come to pass.

Theatres and music halls, pubs with friends, train cars and buses, comic conventions and art fairs, spur-of-the-moment trips to a lonely windswept moor or mountain or forest. And even just a trip to a friend’s house. Let all of that come to pass.

I suppose what I’m really asking for is the freedom I’d taken for granted to move about, unhindered, on my own schedule, as I wish. And if I do get some of that back, which means you would happen, what will you teach me then? And if I don’t get to make very many of you, how will I carry on nonetheless and not let possibilities pass me by?

I await you.

P.S. I’d like to think of myself as a careful, cautious person and perhaps that is what’s keeping me from getting more of you. Deal with it then!


Image of Country Musik: Movements #16, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.

This image features stock images of a Medusa head by Darién Sanchéz and vintage illustration of a back float from the Trousset encyclopedia (1886 – 1891)

Letters To What We Want is a series of letters composed by friends, responding to the question ‘What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?’. The format was left open, as was the choice to sign off anonymously or with a pseudonym.

In exchange, I sent them an artwork, which can be viewed at the end of the post.


Dear Blank and Indifferent Universe,

Asking myself what I want on a morning like this seems laughable: ironic and absurd.

I’m writing this on the morning of the lockdown announcement, pouring the still steaming dredges of my feelings down the sink. Around me, work is piled up like unwashed dishes. You can keep clearing, but it never ends. It’s only January into our second Covid year but I’m already so tired, from having lived in a brain that constantly shoots off like a palpitating rabbit into future, yet unlived months. Seeking survival; seeking a safe place to take one’s cause and one’s people. Is August a safe place to land? September? Is December safest of all? Give me a place to land. 

Fists knock on doors, asking for decisions, directions, discussions. My demeanor is cold and closed off. I wish I could be warmer, I wish I could be human, but warmth will melt the wax off my face, and I need the cold to hide these cracks in my facade. So I that I don’t accidently blurt out ‘don’t ask me, I’m just as dumb and helpless as you’. The rabbit brain darts off again, running, wheezing. Grass flattens beneath my feet. I can’t even come down, because I don’t know the way back. Back doesn’t exist anymore, there is only forward, into the dark morning. I know when I break something, it won’t be just me to pay the price. 

I ask myself what I want. I want there to be no price. I want us all to survive with as little scars as possible. Some of my friends are frontliners in Sabah. Their voices sound different on the phone now – and I know I will never meet these carefree, mellow people again whom I once knew. Different people will return to us – harder, burning with a steely, bitter cold. Your accolades will feel trite to them and make them angry. They will keep their mouths shut and say nothing, preferring to ‘get back to life’. And I can understand, because I feel the same thing forming on my skin. 

I want us to survive. When all this is over, I would like for time and space enough to mourn. Someday, long years from now, I want to take off this apron and walk away, close all my accounts, and disappear unremembered, into the balm of nothingness. 

Anonymous Frontliner,
Jan 2021


Image of Country Musik: Movements #5, given in exchange for this letter.
An edition of this work is available in the shop.