The Thinker on the Hill

It’s late on a Friday afternoon, and it’s been raining all day. I am teaching a group of first years at University of Malaya about dance culture, in the newly reopened classroom wing of Dewan Tunku Canselor. When I open the window to expel the extraneous airconditioning, I get a whiff of petrichor — the scent of dissolved lime that comes from rain landing on hot cement.  I glimpse the exposed concrete beams on the exterior of the building, the same dripping grey as the low sodden sky, and it makes me absolutely delighted.

I have only been teaching at Dewan Tunku Canselor a few weeks. During the last academic year, the dance department was squatting in the Graduate Studies Building. Now that the new chancellory has opened, the old chancellory which adjoins Dewan Tunku Canselor has been vacated, and all the departments standing in line for new spaces have duly been bumped along. The dance department office is now settling into unusually plush digs that used to belong to the university registrar, and classes are now run in Dewan Tunku Canselor.

Everyone knows Dewan Tunku Canselor; it’s the single major landmark when directing people through the campus. “After you pass Dewan Tunku Canselor on the right…” It is the big grey hulk on top of the hill, long ignored since it was gutted by fire in 2001, but still brooding at the edge of vision, like something out of a dream, or a nightmare. It has the permanence and timelessness of an archetype dragged from the Jungian collective unconscious — it has always been there, and always will be.

My first knowledge of DTC was using it for rehearsals for a dinner-theatre rendition of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular. I was twelve years old, and a role had been created for me in the play. It was not as glamourous as you might think — my task was to behave like an obnoxious child and eat crisps by the fistful from a plastic bag, two things which I am still perfecting well into adult life.

How the director had swung DTC as a venue for rehearsal, I do not know. In the early nineties, were there so few rehearsal spaces in KL that we were forced to hide out in the cavernous main hall of DTC? Or, more likely, was there so little theatre going on that we could rehearse wherever we liked?

As a child, DTC was frightening — its massive bulk, its endless gloom, the musty smell of stained seat cushions. I know I was never tempted to explore its inner Gormenghast — when I was not on stage, which was most of the time, I must have sat as close to the ring of stage light as possible, with my back up against something solid. But now I would have it no other way — an appreciation of buildings like DTC is something that should come with age.

Designed by Kington Loo and opened for its first convocation ceremony in 1966, DTC is a fine example of the Brutalist style of the 1950s and 60s. From the French béton brut for ‘raw concrete’, Brutalism makes a virtue out of that cheap and ubiquitous building material. Instead of being covered up with plaster and paint, the marks of the wooden forms in which the concrete is poured is retained in the finished product. The style is best demonstrated in low-rise institutional buildings, suiting their gravitas, with the interior mechanisms of the building characteristically demonstrated in its exterior, often in the curved staircase facades.

By the 70s and 80s, Brutalist buildings were popularly despised. They came to symbolise everything that was wrong about inner city architecture — grey, ugly, impersonal, dehumanising. But in fact, Brutalism sprang from the highest humanitarian ideals, from a socialist ideology that propounded equality for all. Concrete was seen as a democratic, or perhaps a proletarian, material. The popularity of concrete, and of Brutalism, across the world was supposed to demonstrate something universal about the human spirit. In the rush to rebuild after the end of the Second World War, when building materials were hard to come by, Brutalist constructions were designed to be cheap to build and to maintain, and to be durable.

And how they have endured. Kuala Lumpur, a paradise for wrecking machines, has only a few remaining specimens of Brutalism. Apart from DTC, I can name only the Australian High Commission on Jalan Yap Kwan Seng, and Bank Negara, whose enormous striated columns dominate the roundabout below Jalan Parlimen with appropriately Fort Knoxian imposingness. And yet Brutalist buildings must be very difficult to demolish. Thanks to its architecture, when the fire ripped through DTC it destroyed all the interior furnishings, but made very little impact upon the main concrete structure of the building (which must have come as a great disappointment if, as I fantasise, the fire was lit by some despondent UM architecture graduate hoping to get rid of an eyesore and clear a plot for his own imaginary folly at the same time). The main bones of the building survived, down to the concrete balustrades, and, of course, the indelible scars of the wooden forms, although these were blackened by fire. The scorch marks, touchingly, had to be scrubbed off by hand.

Ironically, the insensitive restoration that followed may have done more damage to DTC than the fire. Certainly its dignity has not emerged entirely unscathed. The interiors have been gussied up with recessed lighting and moulded ceilings, elevators with buttons on stylish glass panels (we’ll see how durable those are!) and shiny marble everywhere.

Around the ground floor, the foyer has been enclosed with stained glass patterned with pretty flowers, more 1920s art deco than 1950s post war. The administration has tried to soften the exterior with topiary in pot plants and the interior with pastel-coloured seats and Malay-style wooden carvings.

And yet the spirit of Dewan Tunku Canselor endures. As a building, it is serious, not frivolous. It rests its chin on its fist, scowls and thinks, and in its somber thinking, it represents the intellectual rigour for which Universiti Malaya was once known. By contrast, the new Chancellory, all superficial sparkling glass, white plaster and ostentatious Islamicist iconography, has no subtlety and requires no maturity. Like Disneyland and Putrajaya, with its cartoon domes and pastel prettiness, its architecture best rewards the saccharine tastebuds of five-year olds.

A veritable ivory tower or perhaps a white elephant, the new Chancellory towers above the central lake of the campus, completely out of proportion to its surroundings. Dewan Tunku Canselor, meanwhile, and especially its adjoining Old Chancellory, pressed up against the slope of the hill, have over time become absorbed by their environment. Now they seem like slabs of exposed mountainside, where the turf has been ripped away to reveal the very bones of the country beneath.

The old chancellory on the right, and the new chancellory, in white, on the left.

Since its reopening, university convocations are once again taking place at Dewan Tunku Chancellor. Convocation is yet another preening circus in which I find little favour, and not just because it makes it hard to find parking. But at least when fresh UM graduates take their photographs against a faux leatherbound book background, clutching stuffed toys and fake flowers, above them broods unchanged the grey shadow of Dewan Tunku Chancellor, its concrete facade never pretending to be more than it is.

The mark of a good university has always been its age, its ability to endure while adapting to changing times. And since people are mortal, and academic departments too must bow to trendiness and fortune, what better way to symbolise this endurance than through a Brutalist landmark? Upon this rock, I will build my university.

Links and References:

Review of the performance of Absurd Person Singular: Christmas Treat That Went Awry, by Tan Gim Ean, The New Straits Times, 4 January 1991.

Account of the restoration of DTC: Rehabilitation of the Tunku Canselor Hall, University of Malaya, by Zuraini M.A., Department of Building Surveying, University of Malaya.

Another ode to Brutalism in Kuala Lumpur, with beautiful accompanying images: Brutalism’s Brutal Practicality, by Azrul K. Abdullah, first published in Vox, Feb 2002.

A different conspiracy theory, that disaffected student politicans at UM set fire to DTC as an act of protest against Mahathir, reported in the British press: Students questioned over suspected arson attack at Malaysian university, by David Cohen, The Guardian, 4 July 2001.

Thanks to this post for confirmation of my suspicion that the stained glass panels are not part of the original design, and for its touching suggestion that DTC is an example of Malaysian architecture: What is Malaysian Architecture?, ACAU News, 2 July 2007.

A beautiful image of the foyer of DTC taken in 2008, really emphasizing the feeling of seeing the bones beneath: Campus Brutalism, LINCOLNOSE2®2008.

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October 25, 2011 at 7:36 am Leave a comment

Never Forget Super Noodle House

Whatever happened to Super Noodle House? One minute it was there, a high temple of roasted meat next to the main entrance of Sungei Wang. Then suddenly it was closed, boarded up, dark inside when I pressed my nose against the glass. I waited and prayed, hoping that Super Noodle House would rise again, a phoenix from its fiery gas burners. But instead we got Cotton On and Taiwan Snowflake. Like we need another fucking Taiwan Snowflake.

I can’t say that I have been going to Super Noodle House ever since I can remember going to Sungei Wang, because in the beginning there was Wendy’s. In a dim forgotten corner up many many escalators, as children we consumed limp burgers and shakes at Wendy’s with never-to-be-repeated gusto. For those who thought that this particular fast food brand only arrived in Kuala Lumpur in the past decade (ahem, Time Out KL) I will tell you it was definitely Wendy’s, she of the Pippi Longstocking braids and freckles and the Tiffany lamps.

So Wendy’s came first, but ever since I started making my own decisions about where to eat, and for a long time before that, there was Super Noodle House. And a visit to Super Noodle House was for one thing only — roast duck noodles.

“Dry one or soup?”

“Dry one!”

While sitting at the plastic tables, waiting for the noodles to arrive — roast meat chopped on a grease-marinated wooden block at the front of the shop, slid onto a plate of wantan mee and vegetables transferred from the back kitchen — you could eat the crunchy prawn chilli sambal from the sauce bowl, delicately, with chopsticks. You could buy that sambal, too, as I once did, to take it to the States during college, to warm my freezing winter days. For some reason I never ate it. It sat in my dorm-room fridge, covered with a layer of orange congealed fat, a memory of sunnier times that never seemed to go well with the American food at my disposal. In the end I had to throw it away.

Yet I flirted with the other meals at Super Noodle House. I still remember when they came out with their new menu, spiral bound with colour photographs and English text, to replace the inscrutable dog-eared laminated single sheet only available in Chinese. A whole new world opened up. There were too many things to choose from. Double-boiled pigeon soup? Frog congee? Or something tamer — chicken feet? But no matter how much I strayed — and mostly with the lunchtime dim sum tray, to which I never could say no — I always returned to the roast duck noodles, my one true love.

There might be better roast duck noodles in KL. I’m sure there are. I’m sure you can give me any number of examples, and then, being Malaysians, we will quibble about it for hours. In fact I cannot tell you what was so good about the roast duck noodles at Super Noodle House. The bones were often chopped into awkward spikes, from which the flesh would refuse to detach. The accompanying soup in the bowl was salty dishwater. You always ran out of vegetables before you ran out of noodles. They were not perfect, they might not even have been super, but to me they were the very definition of what roast duck noodles should be. And nowhere in my Bukit Bintang ‘hood can I find anything to replace them.

Behind the chap fan in front of Low Yat: cheap and edible, but the ambience grungy and too quiet. In the basement of Lot 10: far too many claggy noodles, not enough vegetables, and too expensive. In the food court of Pavilion: I couldn’t make myself order them, they just seemed so soulless. At the new Duck King Express, in a feng shui-challenged corner of the Pavilion food court: expensive, uninteresting and very very slow. So much for express.

But while I was waiting at Duck King without any crispy prawn sambal to distract me, I noticed one of the waitresses. Thick-ankled, sensible-shoed, short-haired, face like a side of ham, as Americans might say. She used to work at Super Noodle House. There she was, in this glittering, marble-and-glass, jumped-up pretender to a great culinary institution, but at least she was still doing the same thing.

“Dry one or soup?”

“Dry one.”

One of the charms of Super Noodle House was its work staff. One of them always seemed to be heavily pregnant, wading wide-legged through the narrow aisles. They yelled, and charged around, and booted me to and fro as I was waiting next to the front counter for my takeaway. They were extraordinarily quick and efficient — they had to be, with the line of customers forming outside the door. Even when the noisy side extension was built, there were never enough tables. Super Noodle House was a great place to eat by myself. No one ever looked twice at you or had time for inane small talk. They just fed you, then kicked you out.

But it was not just about cheap and cheerful eats. Outside lunch hours, walking past its window of dripping roast meat, there was always half a suckling pig strung up on a hook, reminding you of where food comes from. “I was but recently a wriggling oinker, just like you,” the pig would say, fat glistening on its crispy snout, “Memento mori.” And so you would enter Sungei Wang, river of money, bastion of modish materialism, with that reminder of what really matters in life.

To Malaysians, what really matters is food. For a successful Malaysian shopping centre, Sungei Wang has always been curiously devoid of food, the eating establishments so hidden away as to be almost invisible. Only last week did I discover the answer to a question I have often mulled — where do the spiky-haired delinquent Malay youth who hang out in such numbers in the semicircle in front of Maybank go to eat? Answer: in the Malay food court on the fourth floor of Sungei Wang. Didn’t know Sungei Wang had a fourth floor? Neither did I.

Now there’s the new side wing on the way to Giant supermarket, with its fancy kopitiam and always-empty Japanese places and random donut shops. We’ll see how long those last. Because it’s a revolving door for restaurants in Sungei Wang. That was something else that made Super Noodle House so special. There it was, right out front, in yer face, and so noisy, so crowded, so extraordinarily skilled in dishing out great food at great prices and great speed, that you were certain it could never go out of style.

Until suddenly it did.

October 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm 2 comments

Spidermaid: The Finale

“You’ll soon have an entire apartment soap opera on your blog,” my boyfriend said, when I told him of my intention to wrap up the chronicles of Spidermaid online. And so I shall!

The conclusion to this tale is more prosaic than its exposition. A few weeks after the Spidermaid incident, I was working in my study when I heard a strange noise from the hallway. I went out to stickybeak – working at home is boring enough to welcome any distraction! At the end of the hall, silhouetted against the light, I saw a woman climb out over the low wall and onto the ledge on the other side. She was very angry – it was clear in the way she hurled her bag over onto the ledge and then swung her leg up. I think she saw me, but she ignored me, and I thought it prudent not to intrude. Here was a woman who would brook no obstacle, and as she disappeared around the corner of the building, it appeared that she knew exactly what she was doing.

A little while later I went out shopping. On the apartment driveway outside the lobby, two police cars were sitting. The shiny black car of the deputy minister who lives in our building was also there, so I dismissed the police as the official entourage.

When I returned with my groceries, the minister’s car had gone, the police were still there and the lobby had been thrown into disarray. In its centre was a pile of baby paraphernalia – multi-coloured blankets, cot, toys. A lift door opened to display two policeman and a woman clutching a baby. She was angrily telling the police in a broad Filipino accent, “No, you get out first, go on, you get out!” Eventually they all disgorged into the foyer and, not wanting to make my gawking too obvious, I took the next lift up.

So, I thought. I knew the white man who lived in the apartment at the end of the hall had a baby – I met him as he was moving in. I didn’t meet the mother, but clearly this was she, and she was Filipina. Now she was being taken off somewhere by the police – the husband not in evidence. Was she an illegal migrant being unfairly evicted?

The answer had to wait until the building’s next joint management body meeting, an event that is usually crushingly boring, but this time was alleviated by a little gossip. No, the management staff said, the police were helping her, not arresting her. The woman and the man were not married, but had a baby together. She had come home to find herself locked out. This had, apparently, happened before – her husband was probably entertaining another girlfriend in the flat. And this is where I imagine my piece fits in – furious at finding herself locked out, the mother of the baby climbed round the outside of the building, got in at the window, and caught them both in flagrante delicto. At which point, according to the management staff, she called the police, demanded to be sent back to the Philippines, and took her baby with her.

The only mystery that remains is this: who was the Spidermaid? Was it the mother of the baby, mistreated by her partner, possibly locked in and trying to escape? Or was it this girlfriend (or another) hurried out the window by the man when the mother returned home unexpectedly? When Brian looks back on it, he remembers that when our Spidermaid exited our apartment, he stayed listening at the door. Around the corner in front of the lift Spidermaid seemed to meet someone else, a woman, whom she spoke to in rather passionate but quiet tones, until one left. I wonder what these two women said to each other. “So we meet again, Spidermaid!”?

April 14, 2009 at 5:42 am Leave a comment

“Oh, anything” — on sometimes not being a foodie

At the end of an essay on first learning to eat well, iconic food writer MFK Fisher wrote, “And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, “Oh, anything,” about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone, with death in the house or in my heart.”

Beautifully worded in classic Fisher prose, but like most of Fisher’s work it is both grandiose and unbelievable. Never after that, in all her life, did she dismiss the art of eating as labour or as tedium?

I won’t make such a claim. I am guilty of eating all sorts of things without thinking about it, and also of that terrible gourmet crime of eating while doing other things: watching tv, working on the computer, reading, playing with the cat. I rise from my work regularly with the urge to eat something, doesn’t matter what, but quickly, quickly. Sometimes this results in the consumption of instant noodles without even cooking them, which some people find repulsive, but after all, someone has made a lot of money off Mamee snacks which are exactly the same. It isn’t that I can’t wait the three minutes that it takes instant noodles to cook, but that I want something crunchier, more substantial. I choose life, I choose raw instant noodles.

And even if it was a matter of time, I have no excuse for eating without proper deliberation. Within a three minute walk of my home I can procure, at various times of the day and almost instantly, mutton curry recommended by numerous KL taxi drivers, curry mee which according to my mother tastes exactly like the famous curry mee from Jalan Alor thirty years ago, spicy noodle soup best eaten at midnight bought from a dry smiling man who sets up his stall in the base of the ghetto flats, cheap and minimalist chicken rice whose undercookedness my cats delight in, and banana leaf all-you-can-eat for the most ridiculous price. If you expand the time limit to a five-minute walk from my home, the choice is overwhelming.

So there’s no excuse for my laziness in eating. In my defence, I can only suggest that, sometimes, perhaps food isn’t really that important — blasphemy! Sometimes it is just a basic bodily need, satisfied to assuage hunger, or to calm oral fixations, or just for distraction.

Picky eaters are antisocial. Overly interested eaters are too. My sister tells a story of going on a roadtrip with a gourmet friend who insisted on traveling miles out of their way to eat at a highly recommended restaurant which none of them could afford. Then again, people who are not interested in their food at all are aliens. I once worked with someone who maintained that he didn’t enjoy eating at all, and wished that he didn’t have to eat because it was so disruptive to his daily life. I don’t think that he was anorexic, but he was vegan. Either his veganism caused his disinterest in food (how much interest can that food really sustain?) or his disinterest in food caused his veganism. In any case, when he visited me in Kuala Lumpur, a city which is about nothing if not eating, I hardly knew what to do with him.

I just finished reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, a collection of essays by foodies and authors about cooking and eating for one. Apparently my raw instant noodle habit is not unusual. And now that I have my new oven, and every night have urges to create extravagant casseroles that are not at all suitable for this climate — lasagna, ox tail, roasts — perhaps I am allowed, during the solitude of the day, to rest on my laurels and my Maggi Kari Letup.

April 12, 2009 at 4:01 am Leave a comment

Spidermaid: The Return

Last night, while my boyfriend and I were watching TV, we heard a knocking sound coming from the study. My boyfriend went to investigate and found a young woman sitting on our open windowsill.

“Can I come in?” she asked. We backed up. She came into the living room. She had long hair, cut in a fringe, with expensive highlights. She was wearing a short denim skirt and high heels. She had obviously been crying.

“Can I leave please?” She sounded Filipino.

We were non-plussed, and she was embarrassed and anxious. She muttered something about her husband mistreating her and needing to get to the Filipino embassy. I made some flustered noises, asked her if she needed help getting to the embassy, if she was sure the embassy was open at that hour.

“Can I leave please?” she repeated. The last thing I wanted to do was to make a woman just released from bondage feel as if she was being held against her will! I escorted her to the front door. She hesitated at the door a moment, listening, and then rushed out.

It was all over in less than a minute.

It was a strange experience. We live on the fifth floor of an apartment building. The tiny balcony outside our study window is inaccessible from other apartments. It isn’t even very accessible from our apartment; it is only there to hold the airconditioning units, and you have to climb through the window to get to it. After the woman was gone, my boyfriend leaned out the window, and he couldn’t see how she could have arrived there. Two 6-inch vertical concrete pillars jutted out between our apartment and the next.

This morning, I stood outside on the street staring upwards. At last I saw that on the fifth floor the gap between the two pillars that separate my apartment from the next is crossed by a narrow concrete bar. She could conceivably have climbed out the window on her side, swung around the concrete pillar to put one foot on the concrete bar, brought the other foot around, and then repeated the process again to get onto my balcony. And she did it all in heels.

It was a strange enough experience, but what made it stranger was that a similar experience happened to a friend of mine in Singapore a few months earlier. In his case, he heard a small voice saying, “Help! Please! Help!” coming from the window of his apartment building on the eighth floor. Now, five floors is high enough, but eight is an unendurable panic-inducing height. The woman who came through his window was also Filipino, but claimed she had been mistreated by her employers rather than her husband. She was in great distress, and my friend succeeded in connecting her with both her husband in the Philippines and the Philippine embassy. He later determined through the Philippine embassy that she had been successfully sent back to the Philippines and reunited with her husband.

There isn’t anything unusual about a woman, especially a mail-order bride from the Philippines, being imprisoned by her abusive husband. It is also fairly common for migrant domestic workers in Southeast Asia to be locked into the houses of their employment by their employers. With the world full of poverty and misery, poor desperate women will continue to take whatever opportunities they can to improve life for themselves and their families. These opportunities are often very risky, and single migrant women often fall victim to abuse and exploitation.

It did seem strange, however, that both my friend and I would be privy to two such similar risky escape plans. What do they teach these Filipinas on their training course before they go overseas to be maids, nannies, waitresses and shop girls — advanced building scaling and rappelling? Or do the women, in desperation, climb up on their windowsills hoping to end it all, and then, oh wait, there’s a step there, I could climb down, I could hold onto that – I could be free!

Not all such bids for freedom conclude with a safe re-entry into an apartment full of well-meaning, if baffled, neighbours. After this incident, I Googled it. The coincidence seemed too pat. I must admit that my first reaction had been, “This has to be a scam! While she engages our pity she’s scoping out our apartment! She’s going to take us for all we’ve got!” And the Internet is justly reliable in reporting the prevalence of scams and cons. But all I found was a news article from Singapore, reporting that an Indonesian maid locked in by her employers had attempted to climb out of her apartment building on the eleventh floor. She made it down to third floor, where she slipped and fell, breaking her back. When the article was written, it appeared that she would never walk again. When asked why she had done it, she replied that she was very homesick, and she was overjoyed to hear that the hospital would transfer her to Indonesia. As the article reported it, it seemed as if she thought her broken back was worth it.

It really is a measure of the depths of poverty and deprivation – that your prospects can be so slim and so dark that the small promise of homecoming can overcome the terror you must feel when looking out an apartment block window and down eleven storeys.

The news article on the Indonesian maid. There are also numerous accounts of maids forced out windows to hang washing or wash windows, and then falling to their deaths, which one news site calls “the phenomena of falling maids.”

December 18, 2008 at 5:16 am Leave a comment

Brood parasites

When I heard my first Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), I thought it was an Argus Pheasant. How could I make such a mistake — koels go ko-el while Argus Pheasants go kuau-waau! Very wishful thinking on my part. Now koels have become such common birds in KL, thanks to their habit of preying on nesting common crows, that their misidentification is impossible, even though they are seldom seen.

Bear Stearns on duty. He really doesn\'t blink.

Bear Stearns on duty. He really doesn't blink.

My kitten Bear likes to look out the window (left). He is also a keen student of wildlife in the city, and the habits of man. Unfortunately, he isn’t very clever, so when a big black crow swooped down on him out of the blue, he didn’t have the sense to run away. Luckily I was there to frighten the crow away, and now the big cat Huki and I keep an eye on him.

I think the crow was so protective because it had a nest nearby. The second time the crow attacked, there was a strange creature perched in the tree beneath our window. The crow was protecting it, but the creature didn’t act like a crow and didn’t look like a crow. It could have been a juvenile koel that the crow had raised, which was beginning to leave the nest except that all the websites indicate that the juvenile koel is brown and barred like the adult female koel, but and this one was definitely black. Couldn’t see the colour of the eye from so far away, but it didn’t appear red. After a while it got nervous of our attention and flew off down the street.

So how?

July 26, 2008 at 6:50 am Leave a comment

Saw V — Nocturnal KL Botanical Massacre

11pm. Rrrrrr. Silence. RRRrrrrr! Silence. Like a delinquent teen gunning his recalcitrant bike. We lay in bed listening to it go on and on and on. I finally went into the living room to have a look, climbing onto the back of the couch to get a better view down onto the street. Then I almost fell over — a few metres beneath me was a man in a cherry-picker, clutching a chainsaw, which he was applying to the trees outside our window. Thankfully he didn’t see me, clad only in night shirt, so I crouched on the sofa and watched for a while, wondering why the hell they choose to perform kind this activity in the middle of the night. His friend beneath would occasionally shout out that useful word, “Hoy!” which can mean anything or nothing.

Beware the man who comes in the middle of the night with a chainsaw!

May 14, 2008 at 3:53 am Leave a comment

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Why mud pies? Because I live in Kuala Lumpur. And I would eat anything.

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