New York day 4

Tuesday, 17 November 2009:

There was a protest on the steps of City Hall at lunchtime today. It is so completely different from the image trotted out by the Singapore government – unruly, disruptive, violent – that it even looked like a protest our government might live with.

City Hall is normally cordoned off; you cannot get within 100 metres of the building without a pass. This, I figure, is so roadside bombs cannot damage it. But that also means that holding a protest on its steps puts the event out of reach of ordinary people. So there we were, standing at the cordon 100 metres away, squinting our eyes to make out that the placards said. All I could see was something about restaurant workers. Meanwhile a crew from some news channel was setting up its camera, and when they were ready, the protesting group – about 40 to 50 of them – arranged themselves on the steps of City Hall, like it was some high school picture. They shouted a few times for sound effect, but I couldn’t catch a word.

Then they stayed in place while a TV journalist interviewed one of their leaders. The protesters knew that the camera, while focussed on the interviewee, was still framing them for the background, so they stayed put, waving their placards a little.

Protesting is evidently for media effect. They didn’t think it mattered whether they interacted with the people lunching in the City Hall Park or passing by on the road or not. It was more important to get into the evening news.  In a way, it’s logical. Physical interaction might mean you get your message out to 200 people at most; on the TV news, your story gets out to a few million.

Yet, it is not like Singapore. Two things were vastly different. Firstly, the police let them in within the cordon, so they could do their thing on the Greco-Roman steps. Secondly, the news media covered it (and they are unlikely to put a government-friendly spin on it too).

I have a photo of the protest, and when I can find a half-decent internet cafe, I shall upload it to this post. I’ve been using Starbucks, but frankly, the wifi there sucks. There is simply insufficient bandwidth to do anything at a reasonable speed. So far, I’ve only managed to get one small photo uploaded, for the Day One post. [photo uploaded on 22 Nov 2009]

Went to see Jude Law play Hamlet this evening. The New York Times had unkind words for the lead actor’s interpretation, saying “Mr. Law approaches his role with the focus, determination and adrenaline level of an Olympic track competitor staring down an endless line of hurdles.” Indeed, there was almost nothing of the moody introspection and indecision that the character’s very name has come to symbolise. Shakespeare’s words , in Law’s delivery, came out more like mockery of indecision. His Hamlet was one that knew what he had to do, and no time for waivering.

As the Times reviewer wrote, Law’s Hamlet “is, above all, an externalizer, never shy about acting out his inner conflicts and acting on his instincts. It is hard to understand the distress of Hamlet’s friends and family when he feigns madness, since the prince, in this case, appears to be as he always was: sarcastic, contemptuous, quick-witted and mad only in the sense of being really, really angry.”

Was it successful? Not really. Instead of a layered play, it came out as a thriller, with forces and actions, both willed and accidental, driving an accelerating story. I’ll grant him this: It was fresh take on Hamlet. Sometimes in art, one has to experiment with new interpretations, and this new take may be more suited to a TV generation.

I could well imagine that doing it the traditional, brooding way, would make the play too “draggy” for today’s audience.  As it is, it had the advantage of a sharp contrast between the lead-up – a staccato of  determination and action – and the shocked silence of the final tragic scene. Like a car chase that ends in the smoking ruins of a multi vehicle crash, and only then do the participant realise what they have contributed to it.

Crashes and emergencies must be an everyday occurence. Sirens from  ambulances, police and fire services vehicles fill the canyons of New York every hour or so. The archetypical sounds of American streets that one hears in movies are all real. But cars give way graciously, and as cars shift into an adjacent lane to let the energency vehicles pass, other cars give way too. Instead of a city imagined of gang fights, knive attacks and muggings that these pressing, chilling sirens suggest, it is a city of civility.

I put down my bowl of salad, then my guidebook, before taking off my jacket. The big black guy in the seat next to mine noticed the guidebook: The Rough Guide of New York.

“You’re not from around here?” he asked with refreshing spontaneity.

“No, I’m not. I’m from halfway around the world.”

“And where’s that?”


He broke into a big smile of recognition. “Oh, Obama was there last week.”

Interesting isn’t it? The associations?

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