musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for March, 2012

Cambodian Road

Just a quick post today; I’m on the road in Cambodia, visiting friends in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The plan was also to go to Battambang for a day or two, but the Try brothers changed their minds and decided to stay longer in Siem Reap (where they used to live, and where I first met them 10 years ago) to visit friends of their own. No problem for me; it saves having to book more transportation and hotel rooms. Plus, it’s nice to actually relax and do not much of anything for a day or two.

It’s been a very pleasurable trip so far. I met my friend Sochiet for dinner in Phnom Penh the first night and we talked about how much that city has changed in the past decade. Indeed, there are now skyscrapers being built and modern shopping centers popping up around the city; things you never could have imagined in the late 1990s. Sochiet is in between jobs right now and working nights as a motorcycle taxi driver. He’s an extremely bright young man, and speaks nearly fluent English, and I hope he can secure a better job soon.

Dave Perkes from Peace of Angkor Tours was also in Phnom Penh earlier this week and was headed back to Siem Reap on Tuesday, so he offered to give me — and the four Try brothers — a lift to Siem Reap. More traffic on that road than ever before, which slows down a trip that had been faster after the highway was resurfaced a few years ago. Oh well, it’s still a scenic drive.

Here in Siem Reap, as usual we’ve had most of our meals at the Hawaii Restaurant on Wat Bo Road, where the food is good, the service always friendly, and the kids can play pool.  As usual, they beat me every game. My friend So Pengthai, a tour guide, has been busy with clients most of the week, but we met for dinner one night. He brought along his 2-year-old daughter. His wife has to stay home and take care of their newest arrival: a son that was born two weeks ago! Speaking of new events, my friend Rong, who works at the Siem Reap Airport, also met us for dinner one night and brought something new of his own: the young woman he married three weeks ago! And to top off the list of things going on, So Pengthai is headed to Phnom Penh next week to apply for a visa at the US Embassy. His tour company wants to send him to a training course in Cleveland (Cleveland?! Yes, that’s the plan!) in late April. Needless to say, he’s quite excited, but also a bit reluctant to leave his wife and newborn son for the six weeks that the course will take.

Neglected Southern Soul

Here are yet more examples of immensely talented soul singers who have mysteriously remained under the radar for far too many years. In the case of Candi Staton, she actually enjoyed a bit of success with the 1976 hit single “Young Hearts Run Free” (later covered by Rod Stewart, among others) but for most of her recording career she has been ignored by the titans of the music business. Part of that may be by choice — at one point Candi Staton dropped out of the pop world to record gospel music — but there’s no doubt that over the years, her labels dropped the ball in promoting her songs to the masses.


A few years back I picked up a copy of The Best of Candi Staton (part of the Warners Archive reissue series) that I found in the sale bin of a shop in Bangkok. That compilation contained “Young Hearts Run Free” along with 14 other tracks, including goodies such as “Six Nights and A Day” and “Victim.” The material on this album runs the gamut from sultry soul to funky disco. This is a strong collection of songs, mostly culled from her mid to late 1970s Warner Brothers period. But recently I bought a new Candi Staton compilation that is even more stunning; Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters. Spread out over two CDs are 48 tracks of heartfelt southern soul that she recorded in the 1960s and early 70s, songs positively dripping with love and heartache. In one review I read, her vocals were called “achingly vulnerable,” which I think is a very apt description. To my ears, Candi Staton’s voice sounds as soulful and powerful as that of Aretha Franklin. Really, she’s that damn good. Songs like “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool)” and “You Don’t Love Me No More”, as well as covers of famous tunes like “In the Ghetto” and “Stand By Your Man,” are nothing short of brilliant. If you like Aretha, Etta James, or southern soul in general, you should treat yourself to this CD. This set includes 12 previously unreleased tracks, and they are all strong ones. Another excellent reissue from the folks at Kent.


Many of the songs on Evidence were written by George Jackson, a very talented songwriter whose songs were covered by a staggering variety of rock, pop, and soul artists in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Jackson also recorded some very fine albums of his own during those years. I recently found a copy of a George Jackson compilation called In Memphis: 1972-77. It was also compiled by Kent Records, so you can trust the quality is top-notch. But the songs themselves are what is worth raving about: 21 tracks of superb southern soul, ranging from smooth ballads to more funky numbers. I hear this album —as well as the Candi Staton compilation — and marvel at how music this amazing could have been ignored for so long. But hey, it’s never too late to discover incredible artists like these. Kent released another George Jackson collection late last year; Don’t Count on Me: the Fame Recordings. I’m already salivating just thinking about getting that one. Can’t get enough of that sweet soul music!

The Motorcycle Dialogues

I ride motorcycles every day of the week. No, I don’t drive the darn things; I’ve never driven a motorcycle in my life and I don’t think the traffic-clogged streets of Bangkok are the ideal venue to initiate such an experience. For now, I’m content to be a passenger on the back of one, letting a motosai taxi driver takes me to my destination. The beauty of taking a motorcycle in Bangkok is that they are nimble enough to weave through the lanes of idling cars, stalled in traffic, getting you to your destination in a fraction of the time it would take by conventional auto options. The downside, of course, is that the distinct odor of exhaust fumes clings to your clothing long after you have reached the end of the journey.


Earlier this week, I took a motosai from Thonglor to the Foodland on New Petchburi Road. Virtually the whole way there, the driver engaged me in conversation. Taxi drivers can be very chatty, but I rarely get a motosai driver who strikes up quite such an extended conversation, and indeed, I felt like I was in the back of a regular taxi, the way this guy bombarded me with so many questions. All the way down the street, other motorcycles are whizzing by us, we’re passing buses and cars, the wind is blowing through my hair, and in general it’s pretty damn noisy, but I’m leaning closer, straining to hear the guy, and trying not to fall off the damn motorcycle. All in all, not exactly conducive to smooth conversation. But still, it was a memorable experience, and this guy was very polite and inquisitive. When he dropped me off at Foodland, I paid him the normal fare, smiled and waved goodbye, wishing him good luck. Who knows, I may run into him again next week.

I’ve become pretty good friends with a couple of motosai drivers from my neighborhood in the past year. I always go to the same motorcycle stand near my apartment, where about ten drivers (a lot fewer than the throng who work at the busy end of Thonglor) sit and wait for passengers. Two of the drivers, May and Team, will drop by my apartment, maybe two or three times each month, after they get off work. For an hour or two we’ll sit around drinking beer, chatting, watching videos on YouTube (football/soccer tricks and drag racing seem to be their favorites), and listening to music. Pongsit Kampee, a popular Thai folk singer-guitarist in the Pleng Puea Cheewit style, is always the music of choice. But I especially enjoy the conversations. It helps me practice my Thai, but I also learn more about the lives and work routine of these drivers. Most of them come from provinces in the north or northeast of the country; May and Team are both from Nakhon Ratchasima. They often work long days in the heat and sun, or nights in the driving rain; no air conditioned lounges or comfy sofas for these guys to sit and relax. If they stay fairly busy, and don’t have too many debts to pay (motorcycle payments, “taxes” to neighborhood “bosses” who regulate the taxi services, petrol costs, etc.), they might clear 10,000 baht per month (about $330). And of course they always have to worry about the possibility of accidents, or being stopped by the police and forced to pay fines for sometimes non-existent violations. It may be a nice, independent lifestyle, but these motosai drivers aren’t getting rich in the process.


May and his other friend, Ben, came by my apartment one night last week. I asked May if he was free the following day. I needed to leave work early, drop by my doctor to pick up a prescription, and then go to the Air Asia booth at the Tesco Lotus store on Onnut to change a ticket. Having a single motosai driver to take me to those places, and wait for me, would be much easier than having to arrange transport at each point. May was pretty sure that he could do it, but asked me to call him the following afternoon to make sure he was free, which is what I did. After calling him shortly after four o’clock, he was parked outside my bookshop and waiting less than ten minutes later. He took me on my appointed rounds and when it was all over, as I reached in my pocket to pay him, he waved off the money. “Not necessary,” he said. I tried again, but he still refused to take the money, leaving with a big smile on his face. Maybe that’s payment for all the beer that he and his buddies have been drinking, but I’d like to think it’s also because that he and the other Thai motosai drivers are simply nice people, kind folks just looking to survive the rat race in this crazy concrete jungle.

Bayon’s Allure

If you’ve never been to Angkor in Cambodia, you are missing out on one of the most amazing travel experiences there is in Southeast Asia. No matter how you feel about traipsing around ancient ruins in the hot sun, it’s almost impossible not to be awestruck by the historic temples scattered throughout the Angkor archeological park. Angkor Wat, of course, is the most famous, but there are dozens (actually, hundreds, if you want to get picky) of other spectacular temples, big and small, in the park and surrounding countryside; Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, and Beng Melea … to name just a few of the most impressive. A 3-day pass offers the best overview of Angkor’s highlights, but even if you buy a 7-day pass, you might find that you still didn’t have enough time to properly see all that there is to see.


Over in the Angkor Thom section of the park, near the two terraces (Elephant and Leper King), is the small but awesome Bayon, my personal favorite site. Walk around Bayon and marvel at all those giant, majestic, stone faces towering above you. Depending on the time of day, and the sun’s rays, the faces take on different tints and shades. No matter where you look or turn, you find yourself surrounded by those enigmatic faces, staring back at you. Just what are they thinking?

Jonathan Kellerman’s Victims

I’m a big fan of Jonathan Kellerman’s novels, so when I saw his new one, Victims, on the shelves of a bookshop in Bangkok last week, I purchased it immediately. Back in the States, this novel is only available as a hardcover edition, but luckily here in Bangkok we often get cheaper jumbo-sized “International” paperback editions of recently published novels, and that was the case with the Kellerman book.


Victims is the latest installment in Kellerman’s popular mystery series featuring crime-fighting psychologist Alex Delaware and his Police Lieutenant mentor Milo Sturgis. The blurb on the front cover of the book announces: Alex Delaware is The Crime Reader. On the back cover, you are reminded again: Alex Delaware … is The Crime Reader. Further down the page, you are told about The Crime Reader’s case, and then about The Crime Reader’s Files. Urrrgghh!!! Too much Crime Reader nonsense already! This is the second consecutive novel that I’ve noticed all this Crime Reader crap littering the cover, so naturally I’m curious: just what the hell is The Crime Reader? My hunch is that it might be the title of a new CSI-inspired TV series, or perhaps some marketing wanker’s idea of branding. But there is no evidence of a tie-in with a movie or any TV series, and an online check revealed no additional information about what The Crime Reader might be all about. Weird.


Despite all the The Crime Reader ridiculousness, Victims is another solid addition to Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series. Yeah, he’s got a formula down pat, but it’s an irresistible one. Kellerman’s ability to punch out sparse, sharp dialogue is among the best in modern crime fiction. No wasted words, he just gets to the point. Like Kellerman himself, the Alex Delaware character is a trained psychologist, and is frequently asked to consult the LAPD on particularly troubling murder investigations. Thus, Alex and Milo are always getting involved in some sort of disturbing, bloody mayhem. The psychological insights and speculation about the murders that pepper the pages help make Kellerman’s books all the more intriguing, and the investigative aspect of interviewing witnesses and suspects also keeps the reader involved. Kellerman is a gifted storyteller, and his vivid descriptions of people and places help the reader better visualize the scene. But sometimes those descriptions are so copious and detailed that I find them overwhelming, especially when he gets going about the interior of a room. Perhaps he’s a frustrated interior decorator! Nevertheless, I enjoyed the new book thoroughly, finishing it in less than 48 hours after starting it. Another 300-plus pages of crime fiction bliss.


Kool and the Gang’s Funky Stuff

“Can’t Get Enough … of that Funky Stuff,” sang Kool & the Gang in one of their hits from the early 1970s. During that marvelous era, Kool and the Gang was one of the finest purveyors of funky soul music in the business, and their fans could NOT get enough of their lively, addictive tunes. In addition to “Funky Stuff,” the band also scored big hits in 1973 with “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging”. The songs on early albums like Wild and Peaceful and Spirit of the Boogie were indeed quite funky, but were also infused with lots of delicious instrumental jazz grooves, a product of the band’s 60s jazz roots. After their sizzling stretch of hits in the early to mid 70s, Kool & the Gang cooled off considerably in the following years and were at a musical crossroads by the end of the decade.


In 1979 the band added a new singer, James “J.T.” Taylor (the extra initials added no doubt so there was no confusion with the singer of “Fire and Rain” fame), picked Emuir Deodato to produce their next two albums, and revived their career with the monster hits “Celebration” and “Ladies Night.” But that was only the start of another long chart run for Kool & the Gang. Throughout most of the 80s their hit streak continued with songs like “Take my Heart,” “Joanna,” “Misled,” “Cherish,” and “Fresh.” Unfortunately, those 80s hits lacked the old funky magic and free-form spirit of the group’s early material and left many longtime fans disappointed with the new direction.


When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month I found a copy of Kool & the Gang’s Light of Worlds at the Rock Corner branch in the Mid Valley Megamall. This was a studio album the band released in 1974. It didn’t yield any huge Top Forty hits at the time, but was nonetheless an excellent collection of songs, perhaps the band’s finest overall album. The instrumental “Summer Madness” was one of those evocative pieces that still can conjure up all sorts of magical memories. Another tune, “Fruit Man,” brings a smile to my face every time I hear it, reminding me of those friendly fruit vendors that ply the streets of Bangkok. I don’t know how I missed out on this album the first time around, but I’m extremely pleased to have finally discovered it, albeit a few decades late.


There are many Kool & the Gang compilations still in print, but the downside to the comprehensive packages is the fact that they usually include both the early and later period tunes, spread out over one or two discs. My favorite collection is The Best Of Kool and the Gang: 1969-1976. As the title indicates, this is the pre-JT period when the band was at their funky best. Indispensible funky stuff.

Alan Rabinowitz in the Wild

I just finished reading Beyond the Last Village by Alan Rabinowitz, one of the more moving and inspirational books I’ve read in a very long time. Although it describes the author’s journey into the jungles of Northern Myanmar, and details his efforts to save endangered wildlife in that area, Beyond the Last Village is much more than a travel or nature tale. The book does indeed focus on Rabinowitz’s wildlife efforts, but it’s also the story how the author fell in love with the people he met in Myanmar, how he attempts to save his marriage, and how the love of animals helped him overcome a severe stuttering problem as a child.


In Beyond the Last Village Rabinowitz recounts his multiple trips to Myanmar in the mid to late 1990s, hoping to survey the country’s many wildlife species, and also hoping to convince the government (yes, those notorious junta generals) that they needed to establish special zones, and even national parks, to protect those animals. Amazingly, he succeeded in getting all those things done, and also discovered some new species in the process.  Call it dedication, perseverance, or just sheer luck, but Rabinowitz had it. Perhaps his style of negotiation, patience, and respect should be emulated by politicians hoping to “engage” with the new leaders of Myanmar.

Although trained as a scientist and researcher, Rabinowitz comes across as a natural explorer and modern adventurer in this book. And he’s also a very good writer. Parts of this book are written so eloquently and are so moving that it literally brought tears to my eyes. Rabinowitz is passionate about his quest to save endangered wildlife, but he’s also passionate about the villagers that he meets during his trips. It’s the accounts of those human interactions that are some of this book’s most memorable moments.


In addition to this book, Rabinowitz has also written Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve, and Chasing the Dragon’s Tail: The Struggle to Save Thailand’s Wild Cats. His newest book, published in 2010, is Life in the Valley of Death. Subtitled, “The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed,” the book is set in the lush Hukaung Valley of Myanmar, where Rabinowitz plans to create the world’s largest tiger preserve. I haven’t found a copy of this book in Bangkok yet, so it looks like I’ll end up having to do an online order. It’s one I’m very eager to read.


Wanting to know more about this fascinating man, I did an online search. I was shocked to find out that in late 2001 Rabinowitz was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). There is no cure yet for the disease, but fortunately for Rabinowitz it was diagnosed at an early stage and is a very slowly progressing type of cancer. A decade later, he is still going strong, and the disease doesn’t appear to have slowed down his “wild” lifestyle whatsoever. In a recent interview with Charles Siebert, he said:

“It’s now ten years since the diagnosis and I’m still only in stage one. Still, not knowing what the future holds, I’ve sped up, not slowed down. There will be no retirement in my life. Forget the second house. Forget everything. I’m going to keep the candle lit at both ends and spend as much time with my wife and my kids as I can when I’m not sick. I want them to know me as much as possible as I still am, as the person I want them to see.”

Alan Rabinowitz, is truly an inspirational person. Let’s hope he is able to continue his adventures and conservation efforts — and write more books — for the rest of this decade and the ones that follow.–

Eating KL

One of the great joys in visiting Kuala Lumpur for me is the food. I’m an unabashed foodie, so I delight in sampling the myriad choices of sumptuous cuisine available throughout the greater KL area. Of course there any many places for authentic Malay food, but there is also an abundance of wonderful Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern restaurants. If my carnivore side kicks in and I feel like a big juicy steak, which inevitably happens when I’m in town, there is always the famous Coliseum Café or the venerable Ship in Bukit Bintang. 


KL doesn’t have the everywhere-you-turn abundance of street food that’s so easily found in Bangkok, but there are parts of the inner city where there are street stalls serving up delectable dishes. The traditional local coffee shops, or kopitiams, are also great places to grab breakfast, or any meal, and some good strong coffee. These joints are usually very laid back and very inexpensive, but also very busy.


I made sure to make several trips to Yut Kee in Dang Wangi for some good hearty breakfasts, and another morning I went to my favorite local Burmese restaurant, Gandawin, for a big bowl of monhinga and a few cups of sweet hot tea. I also stopped by Gandawin one evening for dinner, and the place was packed with expat Burmese workers; eating, drinking, and watching music videos on the big TV screens. Surrounded by all that and speaking Burmese to my waitress — not to mention the betel nut stand out front — I felt like I was back in Mandalay!



Sweet Sixteen

I hadn’t circled the date on my calendar — and actually I can’t remember the exact date — but this week marked the 16th anniversary of my move from the United States to Thailand. Holy jumping sassafras! To say that the time has flown by would be a definite understatement. But even after sixteen years, and a few bumps along the route, I wake up each morning very thankful, and very happy, that I am able to live and work in a magical, tolerant country. This still feels like paradise.


Actually, I haven’t spent the entire 16 years in Bangkok. I moved to Cambodia in 2002 to open a bookshop in Siem Reap. I stayed there for nearly two full years before I felt the tug of Thailand and moved back to Bangkok … to open another bookshop. What’s next? I like challenges and new places, so maybe a bookshop in Mandalay? Hmm. I’d be lying if I said that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. But reality screams back, telling me that that’s not going to happen: No way, dude! You’re better off staying in Bangkok. At least for now.


I’ve met many other Westerners who have relocated to Thailand. Some of them seemingly had no choice in the matter, having been sent here by their company for work. But many others, like me, moved to Thailand because they became disenchanted with their native country and felt that life in Thailand offered something different and exciting. In other words: something better. Some expats adapt and thrive here in Thailand, but others are bothered by the heat and chaos and can’t ever grasp the differences in culture and language. Still others find that they miss something — or someone — back in their homeland and end up moving back relatively quickly.


Me, I’m sticking it out and staying put here in this comfortably weird corner of Southeast Asia. I constantly follow news reports and get e-mails from friends back in the US, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what life is like back there. And it scares the hell out of me. Why would I want to go back to that sizzling pu-pu platter of insanity? If anything, a high percentage of Americans have become more intolerant, destructive, angry, and ignorant over the past few years. Looking at the field of pathetic Republican candidates running for president this year is frightening evidence of this downward spiral. How can so many members of the voting public support religious maniacs who spew lies and distortions? One candidate, Rick Santorum, appears to have a particularly bizarre obsession with sex, babbling on and on about what he defines as family values. But he’s a Catholic, those masters of guilt and hypocrisy, so his having such Victorian attitudes toward sex shouldn’t come as a shock. What is shocking, though, is that he has commanded so much support from the American voting public thus far. Then again, considering the warped “morals” of the religious right, Santorum’s views must be in tune with those of their own.


Charles M. Blow wrote an outstanding piece about Santorum’s sexual fixation (frustration?) in the New York Times last week. He used many excerpts from speeches that Santorum has given on the campaign trail to showcase that obsession. Here is one such example:


Santorum: “It comes down to sex. That’s what it’s all about. It comes down to freedom, and it comes down to sex. If you have anything to do with any of the sexual issues, and if you are on the wrong side of being able to do all of the sexual freedoms you want, you are a bad guy. And you’re dangerous because you are going to limit my freedom in an area that’s the most central to me.”


I’m inspired to borrow a portion of Santorum’s rant, change a few words, and throw it back at him:

If you have anything to do with religious issues, and if you are allowed all of the religious freedoms you want, you are a dangerous guy. And you’re dangerous because you are going to limit my freedom.


And these zealots ARE a very dangerous bunch. I think that by embracing religion — specifically Christianity — to such an extreme extent, America has lost its way to the highway and is headed for the ditch. A staggeringly high percentage of Americans think it’s more normal to pray about matters than to think them through logically. But of course logic or intelligence never enters into their thought process. They are more alarmed about premarital sex and gay marriage than the deteriorating environment or the poor quality of public education. Santorum’s mindset, and that of his religious supporters, vividly illustrates what turns me off about America, what scares me about America, and why I have zero desire to go back there.


Thailand certainly has its share of problems too, and more than a few idiot politicians are running loose. But at least they don’t use religion to blind the masses. In recent years, Thailand has suffered from floods, a military coup, Red Shirt protests, and Yellow Shirt protests. But I’d still much rather live here in this imperfect Asian kingdom than back in the misnamed land of liberty, freedom, and justice for all. From now on I think I’ll just call it the United States of Religious Loonies.

Syl Johnson’s Soul

One of the more interesting — and extravagant — reissues in music last year was Complete Mythology by Syl Johnson, a collection quite unlike no other: six vinyl albums and four CDs, plus a 52-page booklet, all housed inside a lavish hard-bound box. This was such an impressive package that it was nominated for two Grammy Awards this past year: in the strangely re-named “Best Historical Album” category, and for “Best Album Notes.”

I had heard Syl Johnson before — most notably his 1969 smash “Is It Because I’m Black” and a few songs on some Hi Records compilations — but other than those few tunes, I was woefully ignorant about his other recordings. I wasn’t keen to splurge on the mammoth boxed set, mainly because I have absolutely no use for vinyl records at this point in my life, so I settled for The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records, a two-CD compilation.


There are times, listening to this set, that you could swear you were hearing Al Green, or his long-lost soul twin. But that’s not such a far-fetched illusion: Willie Mitchell produced both singers for the famous Hi Records label and his trademark “sound” infects those recordings. But such a musical infection is a glorious thing in this case, and when you are finished listening to the music on these discs, you are left to wonder why Syl Johnson was never a bigger success. Of course, the Al Green comparisons are inevitable, but it would be unfair to call Syl Johnson a “poor man’s Al Green” or some sort of second-rate soul singer. He’s definitely got his own style and when he is able to slip out of the Willie Mitchell production shadows, his vocals take on a grittier, bluesier edge, but without losing their soulful luster.


The Complete Syl Johnson on Hi Records, as its title indicates, covers Syl Johnson’s entire tenure at the label; four albums and 45 tracks. Not surprisingly, since it isn’t just a “Best of” collection, it does contain a bit of fluff; some songs are slathered with too much disco-era gloss, the cover of “Stand By Me” doesn’t yield anything special, and hearing yet another medley of Otis Redding hits was not such a hot idea either. While it may require a bit of wading through the musical mud to get to the goodies, it’s worth the effort. For the most part this collection serves as a fine introduction to a woefully neglected singer.

Syl Johnson’s music has also been very influential among the Hip-Hop community in recent years. “Is It Because I’m Black” may have been his biggest chart hit, but several other of his compositions, most especially his 1967 song “Different Strokes,” have been sampled numerous times by artists such as Jay Z and Kanye West, Run DMC, and Wu-Tang Clan. In some cases, Syl Johnson had to sue certain artists in order to get paid for those samples. Those early songs, however, are not to be found on the Hi Records compilation. For those goodies, you’ll have to either get another compilation, Twilight and Twinight, or splurge for the boxed set.

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