The Comical Hat

Various Writings by Connla Stokes

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Letter From Vietnam: Relatively Speaking….

I have an article in this week’s The Guardian Weekly…. 

On the anniversary of the death of my Hanoi-born wife’s auntie in Ho Chi Minh City, two distant branches of a family tree come together to put the Vietnamese language’s strict conventions regarding pronouns through its paces.

When talking, Vietnamese clans stick rigidly to kinship terms so everyone will know what generation they belong to and who is washing the dishes (it’s probably going to be the youngest adult female).

Filed under hanoi hcmc vietnam connla stokes Vietnam

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Diverting traffic… to Eastlit

Those nice folk at Eastlit have published a very short Hanoi story of mine.

This is the beginning. This is day one. The foreign man is sweating a little bit but he’s prepared to take everything in his stride. This country is a work in progress. He is here to help. He is here to make a difference.

Read on by clicking here.

And by the way, Eastlit is “a journal and network of supporting sites focused on creative writing, literature and art from or connected to East and South East Asia.” 

Needless to say that’s a rare thing they’re doing. You can find out how to submit stories here.

Filed under Hanoi Connla Stokes Eastlit Southeast Asia literature literary journals vietnam

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The Great Chocolate Start Up: Marou — Faiseurs de Chocolat — The Director’s Cut

It begins like an evocative tale from old Indochina with two French émigrés crossing paths for the first time while trekking through a Vietnamese jungle. But that’s how the co-founders of Marou — Faiseurs de Chocolat first met.  

They didn’t know it yet, but Vincent Mourou and Sam Maruta had something common. They were scouting for business opportunities while living rather tenuous existences in Ho Chi Minh City (née Saigon) circa 2010. Vincent, who had abandoned an advertising career in San Francisco, was working freelance (and often for free) when an agronomist he knew mentioned how cocoa plantations were taking off in southern Vietnam. Today, Vincent happily admits he didn’t even know Vietnam had cocoa but his curiosity was instantly piqued. At that time, father-of-two Sam was an ex-banker doing his best to steer clear of the finance sector. But frustrated by having to buy his whole family a new business visa every three months, he accepted a role as the finance director of a State-run chocolate company at the start of 2011. He lasted 10 working days but at least he had a sense of cocoa’s growing potential in Vietnam.

Sam and Vincent would cross paths again at a university, where they were both taking Vietnamese lessons, and at a charity dinner they established this mutual curiosity of cocoa. Just before Tet (Lunar New Year) in 2011, Vincent told Sam he was planning a reconnaissance mission into the countryside. They googled “vườn cacao (literally, cocoa garden) and “Ba Ria” (a southern province in the southeast of Vietnam) and the next day set off on motorbikes in search of a plantation with no address. Such their lack of expertise, on the way they stopped to photograph a coffee tree thinking they saw cocoa pods.

But eventually they met a farmer by the name of Duc (with whom they still work today) whose son happened to be home for the Lunar New Year holiday and spoke enough English to lead an introductory tour of the farm. The Frenchmen were impressed by Duc’s sophisticated drop-by-drop irrigation system and bought a 2-kilo sack of beans before returning home. 

Crossing the Dong Nai River by ferry later that day, Vincent and Sam were enthused by the expedition. They weren’t rich enough to trade cocoa in substantial volume, so Sam suggested simply making chocolate. How hard could it be? They returned to Sam’s house, as he had an oven and a blender, and searched online for some guidelines. They spent an evening roasting, winnowing and grinding to produce a block of chocolate with a coarse taste and a granular texture. It was raw, it was fruity—it wasn’t sophisticated chocolate, more “like a punch in the face” recalls Vincent, but it was very good.

In the beginning

After these ad hoc experimentations, Vincent and Sam were giddy enough to contemplate a manifesto. They wanted to create something locally and in the French tradition of chocolate making (to wit: unadulterated chocolate made from nothing but cocoa and sugar); the emphasis would be quality, not quantity, and the approach would be artisanal. It would prove a defining 24 hours for their inchoate start-up.

Armed with an Indian lentil grinder (purchased in Singapore for a couple of hundred dollars) they set about trying to get to grips with pretty much everything. Cometh the moment, cometh the charismatic German agronomist, Hans Wiberg-Wagner, a friend of theirs, who happened to be running training sessions for cocoa farmers in southern Vietnam. By allowing the guys to gate-crash, he essentially ran a master class in cocoa cultivation for the two budding apprentices. “It gave us a good feel for cocoa, and for what was happening at farms,” says Vincent.

They concentrated on the process of making chocolate, producing a new batch every three days, changing one variable at a time, while driving a patched-up 1965 Citroën La Dalat (upon purchase “The mother of all lemons”) to source beans from farms in Ben Tre and Tien Giang provinces in the Mekong Delta, Dong Nai Province, east of Ho Chi Minh, and Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands as well as Ba Ria.

Typical of Ho Chi Minh City’s creative network, they realised one of their neighbours, Sasha Vassay of EIGHT Design, had the know-how to create a chocolate mould. They describe the slanted, slightly asymmetrical lines with the Marou monogram in the centre he created as a “future classic”. The start-up operation was moving through the gears and by the end of 2011, Vincent and Sam had purchased a factory in the industrialised outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. 

Forging an identity

In search of a design concept for Marou, Vincent and Sam turned to Rice Creative, another fledgling firm at the time. They had an affinity with co-founders Chi-An Benjamin De Leo and Joshua Breidenbach, who had recently walked out on a major firm in search of a “different set of clients and a new working environment.” Enter Marou stage-left along with a breath of fresh air. “Marou were actually one of our first clients and a designer’s dream client,” says Joshua. They immediately agreed that the goal would be producing an award-winning design and set to work.

Inspired by the ceremonial wrappers produced by artisanal printers in Vietnam’s Cho Lon district (Ho Chi Minh City’s “Chinatown”), Rice Creative hand drew chocolate-oriented motifs (read: cacao pods, fruits and leaves) and a few monsoonal clouds across an intricate lattice pattern. The elegant typography referenced vintage signage found around Vietnam while Marou’s now-standard colours – deep vermillion, ochre yellow, grass green, midnight blue – all came courtesy of the trinitario cocoa pods’ natural hues.  The gold embossed lettering and internal gold wrapper completed the sumptuous experience Marou hoped to deliver with every bar. 

While Rice Creative worked on these initial design ideas, by chance a friend of Marou was attending a dinner in London. He produced a prototype of the bar for his dining companions, one of whom was Melina Keyes from Wallpaper* magazine, which, as fate would have it, was preparing for a special issue on “handmade creations” from around the globe. This mysterious bar of chocolate was deemed to fit the bill. Subsequently, Vincent and Sam were invited to produce a one-off limited edition bar. They also discovered that selected products would be exhibited at Milan’s Design Week in early April, 2012. Cue creative overdrive: Marou concocted a bar with 80% cocoa content made with beans from the best organic farms in Tien Giang Province. To enhance the subtle flavours (think light citrusy fruit, banana, cinnamon, honey, a hint of tobacco), they also decided to make a thinner bar.  Meanwhile, Rice Creative went far beyond the brief to simply rebrand the packaging by adding the magazine’s name and created a funky, retro-futuristic design that would soon go viral.

Fourteen months after the two men returned from Mr. Duc’s farm with a sack of beans, suddenly, after Milan, a phenomenon was born. “If the chocolate is as beautiful as the wrapper, I’ll buy some,” emailed one German distributor. France’s biggest newspaper, Ouest France ran with the story before the chocolate was available there but by June 2012, they were exporting. “We hardly called anyone,” says Vincent.

Today, Marou’s products are stocked by 50 retail outlets in France, making it the company’s primary market, followed by Sweden and the UK. Other significant markets include Japan, Qatar, USA, Canada and the Philippines. Timing has played its part. Single origin, bean to bar chocolate has become a movement in recent years. “We’ve been riding a wave,” admits Sam. Nevertheless, Marou has been the indie-star of prestigious events, such as Salon du Chocolat in Paris, where Vincent and Sam have rubbed shoulders with the evangelical Willie Harcourt-Cooze and patron saints of chocolate like Pierre Marcolini and Francois Pralus. To cap off a dizzying 2013, at the Academy of Chocolate Awards last year, Marou scooped three gongs (two for chocolate, one for design)—and yet it still feels like this is just the beginning.  

A brief history of Vietnamese cocoa

Marou has essentially emerged in the third incarnation of Vietnam’s cocoa industry. The French colonial administration first tried to encourage the crop in late 19th century but by 1907 they were ready to pull the plug. The cocoa trees that remained were just another one of the random fruits found amongst the fertile southern delta. Fast forward to the 1980s, when a reunified but economically isolated Vietnam was heavily reliant on the Soviet Union for trade and aid. Moscow’s apparatchiks advised their Hanoi comrades to grow cocoa, so they did. But by the time the trees had grown, the Berlin Wall had come down and the Soviet market had vanished. The majority of cocoa trees were slashed by disgruntled farmers.

But at the end of the 1990s, international trading companies plus Western development aid agencies dovetailed effectively to resurrect cocoa as a potential cash crop (recently, shrinking production in traditional markets such as West Africa has also benefited Vietnam). At the end of 2013 there were an estimated 42,500 farmers growing cocoa on 22,500 hectares (up from 900ha in 1999).

In Vietnam cocoa farms are small, intercropped plantations where cocoa trees can grow alongside cashew and coconut trees. This multi-cultural approach suits Vietnamese farmers who don’t want to be overly reliant on one crop. Still, there is always a fear that plummeting global prices will result in slashed trees. “That’s why we pay above market prices for quality beans,” says Vincent. “When market prices go down, Marou pays up.” Even fair trade is a bespoke affair with Marou. 

The Chocolate Factory

Today Marou’s factory and office is a hive of activity, staffed by a team of 20, including Vincent and Sam. On the factory floor, there is an 80-year old coffee roaster, bought on e-Bay and shipped from France, now roasting cocoa without complaint, and an enormous erstwhile rubber press that went through “a bit of a rough patch in a junkyard” but is now happily pumping out cocoa butter.

Surveying the beans to bar process is Jason Laurent, a 27-year-old former pastry chef from Kansas, USA who, rather appropriately for Marou, ended up in Vietnam on a whim. “I came with nothing and made it work,” he says on the factory floor where a mélange of cocoa-heavy aromas hangs in the air. He describes his role as watching, tasting, tasting, tasting and more tasting. There are rough times for roasting and grinding but it is ultimately an intuitive process with some variables still in play. “For example, the shells on the cocoa from Ba Ria are that little bit thicker,” he explains.

Marou had initially envisaged using artisanal sugar from the Mekong. A nice idea on paper that proved impractical. “The sugar tasted very interesting but it overpowered the cocoa,” explains Sam. Unrefined sugar brings moisture into the mix and “chocolate abhors water,” he warns, rather gravely.  

The taste of terroir

Part of Marou’s unique selling point comes from its conviction in the mysterious element of terroir. Each bar they produce represents a different province. An early adopter of Marou, the executive chef of Don’s Bistro in Hanoi, Donald Berger, says, “Marou’s subtle flavours and aromas are truly amazing and easily detectable. It is comparable to the tremendous difference of terroir in the best wine regions of, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy.”

There is no way industrially produced dark chocolate can compete with this unbridled individualism. As major chocolate companies strive for uniformity, they neutralise natural flavours and end up enhancing the end-product with vanilla to offer some kind of complexity. “Like adding MSG to soup,” suggests Sam. 

It’s not just the land that influences the taste of Marou chocolate. Fermentation, which happens at farm level, is also part of the inimitable process. “Maybe it’s a little bit mysterious,” says Sam. “But our only criteria is making very, very good chocolate.”  

 *A version of this story was published elsewhere. You can read it here

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The Catechism of Cliché — Vietnam Edition: Part 1 — That’s Why They Won The War

1)

The year? 2000 or 2001.

Location? Hanoi

Month? It’s not cold, and it’s not crazy hot, but it is sunny, so let’s say April, or the beginning of May.

Time? Very early by Western standards, mid-morning for Hanoians, maybe 8am. Put it this way, you’re up but you haven’t had breakfast. You might be on the way to teach English. 

What’s happening? Two men are fighting on the pavement somewhere along Nguyen Khuyen Street in Hanoi. They’re not holding back either — high kicks are delivered, wild punches thrown. Doesn’t this seem a little over the top considering the hour of the day, you think to yourself? Back in your homeland men have to drink 20 pints before they can fight like that. That weekend while sitting in a sports bar far away from street level, you mention what you witnessed to a beer-bellied expat who mistakes his weariness of all things Vietnamese for a wisdom of sorts. 

He raises his eyebrows as if to indicate that in a way you have to take your hat off to two men like that — fighting to the death before breakfast (well your breakfast, they probably had breakfast at 5am) — before adding, sagely: "That’s why they won the war mate." 

2)

Time of Year? Summer or Christmas, one or the other. 

Location? Dublin, Ireland at the ZENITH of the Celtic Tiger. 

What’s happening? A Vietnamese woman is far from home trying to keep up with work emails in a different time zone (while staying with you at your parents’ place).

And? Every time your father walks up or down the stairs, he hears her pounding her little fingers away on the keyboard — early in the morning, and late at night, she’s writing like a woman possessed. In the kitchen, your father gives a single shake of the head, the kind that indicates he’s impressed. He leans forward over his coffee, as if the walls might just have ears, and says, quietly, “Makes you think… that’s why they probably won the war.”

3)

Year? 2000

Location? Hanoi

But where exactly? A cafe somewhere in the Old Quarter. 

What’s happening? An Australian expat kicks a shoe-shine boy — the oldest shoe-shine boy in all of Hanoi, in fact, we should probably call him a shoe-shine man — in the arse after the shoe-shine man had failed to heed a warning to stop annoying the Australian’s customers.

His response? A cloud of “RED MIST” descends upon the mind of the shoe-shine man. To wit, he goes berserk. He runs around the street looking for a brick or a stone (some kind of makeshift weapon) and says unsavoury things in the local vernacular about the Australian man’s mother. A commotion ensues. Later, relieved that the shoe-shine man has been shooed off by his staff and other locals, the Australian’s Australian boss nods his head in a way that indicates he has a new found respect for the power of the “RED MIST”.

The conclusion? ”I guess that’s why they won the war,” he suggests.

4)

Year? Sometime 10-15 years ago.

Location? A market

What’s happening? You meet a woman. She is a country woman, or a city woman—one or the other, either way, she is a fearless woman and by fearless we mean to say she’s not afraid to wear wellies and grab an ox or a goat or some other recently slaughtered livestock and hack off what she wants to sell you in a market and ride the rest home on her Honda Cub back to the provinces. You want to half-sing, half say, channeling Bob Dylan, “It takes a woman like you… to get me to say, “Now THAT’s why you guys won the won”” (Or maybe you might also say this when you’re in the middle of the countryside and your two-stroke Belarusian motorbike has clapped out on you  (again) and you don’t have any tools and even if you had some tools, let’s be honest, you wouldn’t have a rashers what to do with them, so you just stand in the middle of the road waiting for a local to drive past, and eventually one does, and maybe he’s a mechanic, or maybe he’s just a man who knows how to do things, but he quickly pulls your bike apart and puts it back together and soon you’re on the road again wondering if the breakdown was all an allegorical dream, one that explains why they won the war).

5) 

Year? 1995- to the Present

Where? Everywhere there is tourism in Vietnam

What’s happening? A tourist sees a Vietnamese person doing something, anything really, that we in the West just don’t do anymore and he or she says…—all together now (let’s sing it as we will in That’s why they Won the War, the Musical, coming to a Broadway stage NEAR YOU this summer)—”That’s why they won the war!

Filed under Satire humour vietnam hanoi expats connla stokes connla stokes

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[Revisiting the archives] Hanoi: Beep beep’m beep beep yeah!

To beep, or not to beep in Hanoi—that is the question!

Personally, I try to keep beeps to a minimum, but sometimes beep I must.

Should they be veering into my path, I reserve the right to beep at young couples with babies squashed in between their bodies, the infants with nothing but a cloth veil draped over their tiny skulls (for the dust you see!) inviting tragedy to happen. 

I also condone beeping at very frail (possibly quite deaf) geriatrics wearing rakishly tilted berets while cycling rickety bikes (it was all tree-lined boulevards and ding-a-ling bells when they were lads, poor things). 

I will admit it’s absolutely pointless beeping at enormous articulated lorries/ trucks but sometimes it feels good to shout in the face of a significantly larger, much more aggressive opponent—I want them to think I’m not scared (although I am).  

I note that edgy, elderly men and worried looking women beep when no one’s in front of them – maybe it’s a just-in-case-beep, or a twitch resulting from years of being subjected to so many beeps and other industrial noises.

My next door neighbour beeps rather than press her own doorbell; her dutiful country cousin-maid scuttles out to open the gate. Why my neighbour hasn’t got a key or, if she has, why she refuses to use it herself is anyone’s guess. Throughout the city dogs probably recognize the sound of their master and mistresses’ beeps.

Young female office workers, seemingly pressed for time, beep outside bakeries while shouting "em oi! Banh bao!" A hot bun is duly delivered, change ready in hand.  

The buses that barrel down the roads beep indiscriminately – everything that moves is in their way. But do they beep at other buses? Or is there a pact of silence between drivers? 

Sometimes you see middle-aged dads chuckling proudly as they teach their toddler boys how to make the bike go beep as if this is a moment they will someday cherish (do you remember your first beep son?)

Snot-nosed young teenagers – all skin, bones, football shirts and hair-gel – beep with extra-loud horns they’ve installed to scare the bejesus out of all and sundry. It is highly effective, of course, and extremely reckless. It should be punishable by exile to the country’s outermost provinces – or perhaps offenders should be placed before 10 trucks and beeped at till their ears bleed. 

Not everyone, but nearly everyone not at the front of the peloton beeps when the lights turn green—just to remind everyone at the front to get a move on. Many beep when the lights are red. 

Everyone on the street beeps together, patriotically, when Vietnam wins an important football game (which is why many at home hope they don’t win).

Cars, taxis, and mini-vans flash their lights while they beep, sort of a double-reminder to make sure you notice that they’re driving on your side of the road at high speed. Motorbike drivers driving on the path (to avoid the traffic your honour!) beep at pedestrians as if the latter is in the way.

Some locals beep after they have already passed you – ha!

Others beep when you pass them – bah!

Some beep accidentally — oops! 

Some don’t even realise they’re beeping — huh? 

Some beep because someone else is beeping at them — grr! 

If a motorbike beeps in the middle of the city in the middle of the night, even if I’m asleep, sometimes I dream that I can hear it.

Every morning a motorbike, if I’m lucky, a truck, if I’m not, beeps outside my house before my alarm clock goes off — the good news: I never sleep in. Extra bonus: It’s also a reminder that there’s no point dreaming of a day without a beep. 

Otherwise you might end up like *that* guy who is convinced he can change the collective habits in a city of however-many-millions by telling everyone to stop beeping so much, one individual at a time, tilting at the figurative windmills till the day he beeps off.     

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*I wrote this originally in 2006, and an alternate version was published in the Guardian Weekly in 2008 or 2009, but I don’t really like either version, so I just revisited this quickly today so there’s a “better” version in the system. C.S. 

Filed under Hanoi traffc connla stokes connla stokes humour writing vietnam noise pollution

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Once upon a time, Moca Café was the trendiest brunch spot in all of Indochina… (or at least Hanoi)

Once upon a time, Moca Café was the trendiest brunch spot in all of Indochina, well, at least Hanoi anyway. No, really. But I’m talking waaaaay back at the start of the 20th century when we were all using Hotmail and connected to the rest of the world by erratic dial up internet.  

On a typical Sunday in the year 2000, the Hanoi expat parish and gossipmongers descended to “Church Street” (Nha Tho) to hit Moca for eggs Benedict or a stack of pancakes and an always decent espresso—and sure didn’t the Maple Syrup flow like wine (or tomato ketchup anyway)?  

I hung out there quite a bit during the week too—me and me auld mucker Paul “Oslo” Davis used to go there for coffee and steal the old Newyorker magazines (for the record, we now both subscribe—that’s called moving on up in the world my friends). They also stocked freshly arrived days-old copies of the Bangkok Post—if you got there early you could have a crack at the crossword or at least see what was on in the cinema in the “real world”—and maybe the International Herald Tribune, too.  It was considered classy enough to go for a splurge. When I got paid, my fellow English-teaching friends and I drove through the streets with large A4-sized envelops stuffed with smelly old VND50,000 notes to Moca where we treated ourselves to the best chicken Makhani east of Bradford before hitting the pool tables of Hanoi bar by bar.

But at some stage the owners fired the American manager Jeff (known fatefully as Moca Jeff) who had helped set the whole thing up—we presumed he had a share in the place but it turned out he was just a(n expendable) hired-hand. This is a not-unheard-of-manoeuvre in Hanoi (from an expat perspective anyway): once the business is ticking over nicely, the foreigner and his or her salary are deemed surplus to requirements. The Vietnamese owner started to run the show with his wife. Their attitude was, and I admit I’m speculating here, restaurants pretty much run themselves and the less you spend week-to-week the more you make per annum. They cut back on the crowd-pleasing superfluities. The international papers were not purchased anymore—the old ones just sat there till they slowly disintegrated. The Maple Syrup, well it didn’t flow like wine and you can probably guess where I’m going with this—maybe, one person noticed the quality of the meat had taken a turn for the worse, or the eggs in the Eggs Benedict kept coming out hard enough to juggle, or there was 50% less feta in the Greek salad, and at some stage, people started to notice the menus were falling apart or a rat was running along across the top of the bar, and one by one, or clique by clique, everyone who was anyone in Hanoi stopped going to Moca Café.

But it has prevailed. It turns out restaurants can run themselves—insert caveat: at least in Hanoi they can. Its wide, inviting front and prime location by St. Joseph’s church mean it exists as a snare for unwitting, weary tourists, walking around aimlessly between a meal and a water puppet show. I know as my friend, a resident of Hanoi from 1999 to 2001 walked along Nha Tho Street just two weeks ago. Yeah, he was feeling hung-over, and yeah he was pining for comfort food, and lo and behold, Moca Café appeared before him like a vision and his heart must have skipped a beat as he recalled an expertly made cappuccino on his lips and eggs cooked whatever-way-he-liked-them. The warning signs were all there, he admits that now. The jaded, unresponsive waiters looking like the customer who just walked in is nothing but a drag. The dim lights, the faded unloved vibe of the whole interior, but he sat down, and against better judgement he ordered something, something stupid, like a club fucking sandwich which came out looking like it had been made in 2006 with a handful of re-deep fried French fries made from the part of a potato that’s black and he took a bite then waited for at least a minute before asking for the bill while wondering how Moca Cafe became the saddest excuse of a brunch spot in all of Indochina, or at least in Hanoi. When he told me what happened, I told him this story. 

Filed under Hanoi vietnam Connla Stoles connla stokes humour indochina

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Check, bill/ Check (the) Bill/ Chek Bin…

Is it “Check bill” – i.e. an imperative? As in short for “em oi, check the bill.” If so, I’d rather we said “Em oi, could I trouble you to tally my bill…” — or at least say please. 

Is it “Check, bill….” – as in the start of a list that we could potentially add more synonyms too? If so, I’d like to mix things up, “Tab, bill, invoice, check, a piece of paper with an itemized account of consumed foods and beverages…”

Is it some sort of skewed translation of Vietnamese? All I know to say is “tinh tien” which as far as I know means “calculate money” and always reminds me of a Kiwi woman back in the 20th century BC who tried to ask for the bill in a bia hoi restaurant and ended up with a single fried egg (trung chien) – she was so embarrassed she ate the egg then took out some money and made a few “I want to go home” expressions till they got the picture. But how Kiwis pronounce vowels (no matter what the language), well, that’s another story…

Does it hark from Thailand where they say “Chek bin”? A bit like how “Same, Same but Different” – believed to have first originated in the Land of Smiles – came in with the tide of backpackers 15 to 20 years ago and is emblazoned on t-shirts all along the tourist trail – maybe the “farang” who spilled over into Vietnam after a month in Ko Samui just kept going with “chek bin” until it became a more anglicized “Check bill…”

Your theories on a postcard, please.