Saturday, December 6, 2008

Laos - the not-so-lost kingdom

Laos - they used to have a million elephants, and now they have two thousand - mostly in elephant camps and in the logging industry, controlled and trained by mahouts (elephant trainers). Though still considered mostly an isolated country by Southeast Asia standards, change has definitely come to Laos.

Named "Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol" by Fa Ngum, a Cambodia-backed Lao prince who married a Khmer princess and ascended the throne as a result. The tradition seems to have continued into the 20th century, where the last king Sisavong also married a Khmer princess (granted she was one of 15 wives he had). The culture and food of Laos has some similarity to its neighbours Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand - yet it has managed to avoid the rapid development and transformation that its neighbours have undergone.

Laos is considered "off the beaten track". Not the easiest of countries to travel to, literally four international airlines fly in and out of the capital Vientiane (China Eastern, Vietnam Air, Air Asia and Thai Airways).

Despite that, it's obvious that lots of people have visited Laos, liked it so much that they've decided to stay and try to transform it into a granola-crunchy utopia. Every imaginable NGO and development institution resides in Laos - from the ADB, to the UNV. Even the Mekong River Commission has its headquarters right on the banks of the Mekong (of course) outside the Vientiane city centre.

Apart from these larger organisations, the granola-crunchiness also extends downwards to small Laotian enterprises (mainly the ones catering to the burgeoning tourist industry). Many local tour agencies offer "eco-tourist" options - from "fair" trekking where a percentage of the earnings from the guide will be paid to the villages tourists walk through, sustainable community development through building of schools and skills training, and support of cottage industries and traditional crafts. Even my little US$15/night hotel stuck stickers in the bathroom, warning me of global warming and environmental damage - so please turn off my lights and re-use my towels!

How did Laos - neighbours to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam - develop in such a tranquil manner? So many foreigners seemed to have been charmed and lulled by the atmosphere of Laos, fallen in love and been determined to preserve it ever since.

Some of the institutions in Vientiane which I found interesting:

TRUE COLOUR - a women's handicrafts cooperative started up by a Lao woman and run on funding from the Japanese government and generous individuals. The store sells completed products from the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women. Laotian village women in particular are trained to create higher quality products while keeping to the traditional weaves of their culture. The money raised goes directly to the women and the cooperative. And tourists can even take lessons on how to dye cloth or weave.

MAKPHET - one of my favourite restaurants visited during my stay in Laos, it's run by Friends International which takes in street children and prepares them for reintegration into society and vocational training in the culinary arts or the running of a restaurant. The children learn to wait and serve, they also make lovely little handicraft from recycled material in the small gift shop on premise. And if you're worried about the quality of the food, don't be. The food is simply marvellous. Not exactly Laos, not exactly Western - they've managed to come up with some unique and delicious recipes. Their desserts are also great.

CAROL CASSIDY - A vivacious, extroverted American - she moved to Laos some years ago, setting up a workshop of dyers, weavers, and even a mulberry farm which produces its own silk. Her designs are beautiful, often integrating traditional patterns with architectural designs, creating something that is quite stunning though very pricey. Her designs are sold at the MoMa, and she has visited Washington DC's Textile Museum as a guest speaker.

Luang Prabang is even more a hub of granola-crunchiness than Vientiane. It has that whiff of backpacker about it, but there is an air of affluence about it. It's the sort of place where the backpackers are young well-to-do Europeans doing their round-the-world-on-a-shoestring would hang out, smoke ganja and go jungle trekking. One of my favourite places was a little cafe called Saffron, where they make espressos from coffee beans grown locally in Laos. They've even got "fair trade coffee" tee-shirts for sale.

I'm sure all this must sound quite alarming to tourists who had visited Laos in the past and not experienced all this commercialism (albeit under the guise of sustainability). It was equally alarming for me when I first visited Yangshuo in the south of China, and was confronted with a shrivelled old lady asking in English "Peanuts? Peanuts?" and banana pancakes on every breakfast menu in the area!

No matter what, there seems to be a sense of willingness for the Laotians to embrace and adopt the middle-class backpacker's idea of a Southeast Asian Shangri-La. Yet, I can't help but wonder how one tells what the real Laos and what this made-up, tourist version of Laos is.

At the end of the day, I like Laos. There are places within (a little further even off the beaten track) where you can still see glimpses of everyday life without the influence of the socially conscious foreigner. It just takes a bit more digging beneath the surface, a little more effort.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

You can't make a silk purse out of a peasant's bag

I lay no claim to the following article, wittily and wickedly written by The Times regular columnist Caitlin Moran. But it's too funny to ignore. Especially the Guernica in ponyskin comment.

I promise to lay aside my Chanel bag-owning aspirations during this time of financial crisis. I am not, I repeat NOT, deranged and unpleasant. (oh my god! is that the latest denim blue
Chloé...). Just kidding.


October 27, 2008

You can't make a silk purse out of a peasant's bag

The handbag I would like most is a big, hollowed-out potato with handles; in times of crisis I could bake and eat it

Should I buy a £600 handbag? “What are you talking about?” many of you might ask. “What on Earth are you saying? Do you know that there's a recession on? Do you know that old people are having to throw their trusted companion-cat, Mr Whiskles, on the fire, just to keep warm? Didn't you see the It's Fun To Eat Worms! supplement in The Guardian? Should you buy a £600 handbag? What kind of obscene question is that? You're deranged and unpleasant.”

To which I say: “I know all that. I know. But Grazia magazine doesn't. Tell Grazia. It's Grazia that told me I should have a £600 handbag, that it would be a style investment. Tell Grazia!”

Of course, it isn't just Grazia that's making me think that I need a £600 handbag. I am not a simpleton. I am not so easily led. It's the Woman supplement of The Observer, too. Before I began reading these periodicals, my stance on “investment handbags” was that if I were going to make a £600 investment, it would probably be in post office bonds, not something that, by and large, lives on the floor in pubs, or which I sometimes use to carry 5lb of potatoes. But in the past year I've begun reading women's fashion magazines and am aware that I am in a handbag minority. Normal women, says Grazia, do not buy one handbag every five years for £45 from Topshop; normal women have dozens of handbags: small ones, potato-less ones, £600 investment ones such as a Mulberry tote. With mounting alarm, I learnt that having a £600 handbag is like having a crush on The Joker in Batman. It is an irreducible fact of being a woman.

The October edition of Observer Woman, however, brought matters to a head. Lorraine Candy, Elle's editor-in-chief, tried to go a week with just high street gear. On the Wednesday she writes: “I've failed. Today, I know that I cannot brave that front row with its cool bags and sexy ankle boots without the one thing that makes my outfit work: my new Chloé bag. I feel ashamed.”

I had a flush of horror: no one has ever passed judgment on my cheap handbag to my face. But then, this is a reserved country. I don't know how they would react to my £45 handbag somewhere more demonstrative - Portugal, say, or Texas. They might leap on to their chairs screaming “MAH GAHD!”, trying to hit my cheap handbag with a broom, as if it were vermin.

That night I made a decision. One of the modern wisdoms of womanhood is that eBay has fake designer handbags that you can't tell from the real thing. But despite typing in “great fake £600 handbags for £100” into the “Search” field, nothing came up. In despair I was driven to look for £600 handbags for £600. Vuitton, Prada, Chloé; £300, £467, £582. God, they were horrible. Like Guernica, in ponyskin. I tried to find one I liked. I really did. Tanned, tasselled and oddly shapeless, many resembled Tom Jones's knackers, with handles. Others were covered in straps, buckles and brasses, like some S&M horse. There was a whole shelf of leather clutches with gigantic gold clasps that looked a bit as if someone melted Grace Jones in 1988, leaving behind only her blouson leather jacket and huge earrings.

On page 14 of my Search Results I finally saw one I liked, by Marc Jacobs. It was bright, acid-house yellow, with a picture of Debbie Harry. But my joy in finding a £600 bag I liked was mitigated when, on closer inspection, it proved to be a canvas tote, for £17; basically, the only designer item I was attracted to was a Marc Jacobs carrier bag. I was thrown into existential despair.

I am not wholly unfashionable. I have learnt some things about style over the years. A bright-yellow shoe is surprisingly versatile, patterned tights are never a good idea. And if - through chaos, fate and backed-up laundry - you end up in an outfit of alarming randomness (socks, Crocs, tuxedo jacket and tricorn hat), you just look people in the eye and say, with crocodilian self-assurance: “I don't like to be too matchy-matchy.” But if I cannot connect with the finer things in life, if £600 handbags fundamentally revolt me, this must prove that I am a peasant. If I really were of noble blood, left by mistake on my parents' council house doorstep (as I still, albeit fadingly, believe), I would, surely, have an affinity with these things. It would be like the princess and the pea. I'd probably get a rash if I used a handbag worth less than £500. Every time my eye is unstoppably drawn to some bright red thing in “pleather” for £45, it's further confirmation that I am resolutely of the underclass.

If I'm honest, the handbag I would probably like most is a big, hollowed-out potato with handles on it. Then, in times of crisis, I could bake and eat the handbag and survive the winter. That is the way of my people. And yet, despite all this, my handbag-psychology denial rumbled on. Yes, those £600 handbags might be visually unappealing, I thought to myself. But maybe if you touch them, they have some manner of £600 magic that makes it all worthwhile.

“They will all be made of butter-soft leather,” I told myself, not really knowing what that meant. “You can always tell the difference close up. People who come near me and feel the bag will know my true nature.” I went to Liberty and walked around, touching the handbags, waiting for the enchantment to overwhelm me. They all just felt like handbags. I did, however, see a silvery purse that I liked. For £225.

“I am classy after all!” I thought, running to the till, incurring a £40 overdraft fine and a rumbling schism in my marriage. “Maybe I have a secret uncle who's an earl! True breeding will out! Finally I crave expensive designer items! I'm normal! Thank you, Grazia!”

Five days later the silver purse was pickpocketed on Gower Street. It turns out that thieves read Grazia, too. They can spot expensive accessories from 500 yards away. It also turns out that husbands do not read Grazia, and no matter how magnificent or loving they may be, they can't help themselves from sporadically saying “£225! For a purse!”, as if you've just deflated the Moon and put it in the bin. Again.

I've gone back to my £17 purse and £45 handbag. I know my place in the handbag class system. My name is Caitlin Moran, and I am an accessories peasant.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Singapore Biennale 2008

I haven't an artistic bone in my body.  I can't paint (except the occasional piece of furniture), and I can't draw (except for a fairly decent stick figure).  Therefore, I am always very inspired and moved by artists who have a vision and execute it.

The Singapore Biennale 2008 is the second time that Singapore has hosted an art biennale.  I chatted with several overseas clients who managed to visit it on their trip to Singapore, and they consistently mentioned that the biennale's standard was one of the best they'd seen.  Therefore, my curiosity was piqued and I went to check it out myself.

It was a mixture of good and average, with some exhibitions leaving me quite breathless.  The venue was also interesting - old Supreme Court in SIngapore.

Here are the highlights of what I liked:

"Singapore 2008" by Wit Pimkanchanapong from Thailand
A life-sized Google Earth map installation of Singapore where visitors to the exhibition could interact with post-it notes, simulating the online tagging of places (right down to specific addresses) on Google Earth.  I left a little post-it right over my house :)

"Tropicana 2008" by E Chen from Taiwan
An elaborate woollen set, complete with mailbox, scooter, chairs, tables and a little garden - a motor quietly and slowly unravels the entire set until it becomes a pile of yarn.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The transcience of objects - right down to art.

"Little Guilin: (Bukit Batok Town Park) Singapore 2008" by Gary Carsley from Australia
This one is a nice little surprise.  The artist took IKEA furniture (cheap at best) and transformed the interior of the closet and drawers into an elaborate, precious work of art.  From a photo, he painstakingly re-creates the image of Little Guilin with layers and chip of veneer.  His style, called Draguerreotype, references the process of dageurreotyping but with the idea of "drag" or dressing up.

"Blackfield 2008" by Zadok Ben-David from Israel
A two-dimensional sculpture - the viewer's perspective is challenged depending on the angle the installation is viewed.  Essentially an intricate field of tiny metal flowers and plants, it is a colourful and happy garden from one side.  On the other side, it is a charred and depressing "blackfield".  

And finally, the highlight for me was a mesmerising collection of photographs from Dutch photographer Desiree Dolron.  Her photography (which I later discovered after I saw her work at the Singapore Biennale 2008) is haunting and introspective.

This is what she displayed - a beautiful selection of photographic art which references Vermeer and the other Dutch masters who did beautiful portraits with the play of light.

Her work is so gorgeous it's worth checking out:

And in case you're too lazy but somehow managed to stumble upon *my* blog - then here's a few she took in Havana, Cuba - very romantic and melancholy.

I do look forward to the return of the Singapore Biennale in 2010.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bright Lights and Fast Cars

I have never been interested in cars, which probably explains why I like and drive the car that I drive. Therefore when Singapore announced that it would host a Formula One Singapore Grand Prix, it made no impact on me. All I knew about Formula One then was that Lewis Hamilton is a hot British driver, and Kimi Raikkonen has mesmerising eyes (so my colleague tells me).

Singapore was planning to hold Southeast Asia's first street race
à la Monaco - whose Formula One street race is dubbed "the crown jewel of Formula One". Everyone (even a non-enthusiast like myself) knows that Monaco's Formula One is famed for its celebrity-studded parties, glitz and glamour. So how could Singapore, known for its staid nightlife, efficiency and cleanliness, hope to compete against that?

For one, we decided to hold it at night and make Formula One history.

The well-oiled machinery that is Singapore, and the efficiency of the Singapore organisers were definitely a boon in this case. As the weeks drew increasingly closer to the dates of 26 - 28 September, Singapore began to prepare itself for this event on a scale that was unlike any other event ever hosted on our tiny island-state. Massive roadworks and upgrading projects were undertaken with an aggressive timeline. In the final days, the lighting systems were tested and it was exciting to think that the very same road my humble Honda was driving on would be the self-same race track of the souped-up Ferraris, Renaults and Mercedes.

Nearing the race dates, all anyone could talk about was this or that F1 party or event. Many lifestyle companies were gearing up for corporate events on a scale and budget never heard of before in Singapore. Various celebrity performers (Chicane and Emma Shapplin to name a few) were flying in for special appearances and performances. I saw Jackie Chan arrive at The Fullerton Hotel on the eve of the Formula One races. We were beginning to feel like a cool and fun place!

On the first evening of the races, I walked around the Financial District where part of the race would pass through. I could hardly believe my senses. The excitement in the air was palpable, and the atmosphere was simply buzzing. People milled about, and everyone seemed eager with anticipation for the practice sessions and a chance to hear the engine roaring as the race cars whizzed by in a lightning speed blur.

The three days passed quickly and every single day, there was a sense of festivity. Every evening, bars and clubs were filled with a boisterous crowd of locals, expatriates and international visitors. Every day, guests would go out and shop or visit the local sights in Singapore. Things were bustling in Singapore, recession looming or no.

Someone asked me, how does this benefit the heartlander*? Afterall, the heartlander is not going to shell out a few hundred dollars for an F1 walk-about ticket to enjoy the hubbub of Formula One. True as this may be, the coming of Formula One to the shores of Singapore has much wider repercussions than whether the average Singaporean suffers from a few days of traffic jam.

In the midst of international financial turmoil and economic crisis, we managed to pull off an event of international standing that felt both glitzy and prestigious. We attracted a record number of visitors who came to Singapore and spent money in Singapore. More importantly, they enjoyed themselves. The initial feedback in the news indicated a general sense of enthusiasm and anticipation from the drivers about the Singapore Grand Prix. Other commentators have dubbed Singapore as undoubtedly a strong competitor of the Monaco street race. That's quite an endorsement! I believe we have a ways to go to challenge Monaco, but Monaco does set the standard for us to aspire to.

To date, Singapore has played host to many high-profile events, including the 2006 IMF/World Bank annual meetings as well as the 117th International Olympic Committee Session. While these prestigious events gave Singapore some degree of visibility on the world map, all of these fade under the bright lights of the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix.

Although a heartlander may not be able to afford tickets to the Formula One, the race still changes our lives in subtle ways. Watching the race coverage on television, the helicopters showed Singapore from the air - a gorgeous, glittering city skyline as I've never seen before in my entire 23 years living in Singapore.

Apart from invoking a sense of patriotism and national pride that the orchid motif batik shirt "national dress" never quite achieved, the race has finally put Singapore on the international map of cool places. The trickle-down effect of the money spent on tourism and the lavish corporate events have also benefited the heartlanders directly. It also gives Singapore and Singaporeans the international exposure that could be the key to pushing us - as a society - to the next level. No other event in Singapore has come close to this.

I don't know about anyone else, but I am definitely looking forward to Singapore Grand Prix 2009, when I'm sure the organisers will do an even bigger, better race!

*Heartlander: Defined as a Singaporean who is generally poorer, less educated, either working class or lower-middle-income, speaks Singlish, lives in government housing estates, and has a local (rather than global) perspective on political, economic and cultural issues.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Malaysia Boleh!

I recently went up to Kuala Lumpur - otherwise known as KL - for work, and decided to extend my stay over the weekend to visit my aunt & uncle - who have lived and worked in Malaysia for more than 20 years.

My visits with them are always fun, with my uncle and aunt plying me with more food than humanly possible. They enjoy spoiling me, and invariably take me to one of my favourite Chinese restaurants for "
sang ha min" (ie, freshwater prawn noodles - GIANT prawns wok-fried in a fragrant soya sauce stock then poured over crispy egg noodles - heaven in your mouth with some nice chilli padi). Needless to say, I always leave KL several kilograms heavier - belly full of food, bags filled with new clothing & shoes.

During my many visits, my cousin always tries to convince me that I should find a job in KL and move there. He is Singaporean, mind you - did his 2.5 years of National Service duty to the nation, albeit as a Malaysian Permanent Resident. So what is it about Malaysia that has so greatly appealed to my aunt and uncle's family, all born and raised in Singapore, yet who have mostly (save one cousin) decided to make Malaysia their permanent place of residence?

I have visited Malaysia many times in my life but my trips are never longer than 3 days and typically focused on food and shopping (or is it shopping and food?). My experience of Malaysia is superficial and limited, to say the least, and I never once questioned the idea that Singapore is a far superior place to live in.

On this trip, it suddenly struck me what the tourism board tagline meant:
Malaysia, Truly Asia. In some ways, it is truly Southeast Asia. With its multi-ethnic society not unlike Singapore's, each race seemed to be more actively vocal than in Singapore. Going around KL, one can hear a polyglot of languages and Chinese dialects - suppressed by the Singapore government in favour of standardised Mandarin Chinese. With its dirty streets, over-stocked and spicy-smelling grocery store shelves of everything under the sun, unhealthily delicious food, kampung-esque city planning - Malaysia is a great way to experience Southeast Asia in all its unkempt glory.

On the Malaysia vs Singapore issue, I could sum up the differences in three areas: food, cost of living, and politics.

I shall start with my favourite topic - indeed the favourite topic of the Chinese! -
food. In terms of variety, flavour and authenticity of street food and Chinese "zi cha" (home-cooked) food - Singapore gravely loses out to Malaysia. Where the modern denizens of Singapore have become health-consciousness and eliminated many traditional ingredients in Chinese cooking, the Malaysian Chinese still retain the old ways - pork lard, extra salt, dash of ajinomoto (aka monosodium glutamate), deep-fried this and that in animal fat. This leads to an extraodinarily rich menu - probably the sort that brings on gout if one is not careful.

My cousin took me out for after-hours, post-drinking street food from a mobile steamboat stall. This type of street fare, called "
lokeloke" (ie, dipping in Cantonese), is a real favourite among the club-goers. Selecting from choice delicacies like skewered cockles, baby octopus, cuttlefish tentacles and pigs' umbilical chord (apparently a treat that is hard-to-find) - one dips the whole lot in boiling water then douses it with salty, spicy chilli sauce to eat while still steaming.

My uncle also brought me to one of his favourite family-run hawker centres where he and his family eat on a regular basis. For dinner, he ordered:

- whole pumpkin with seafood delicacies like fish maw, scallops, sea cucumber, and tender shrimp cooked in a light, sticky broth
- pan-fried chicken then stewed in a claypot with dark and sweet soya sauce
- pork ribs marinated in Guinness Stout and stewed till tender
- a whole steamed garoupa
- fried
kangkong (water spinach) with sambal belacan (pounded chilli mixed with pungent shrimp paste)
- large, deep-fried tofu squares (still white and soft on the inside) topped with a delicious blend of minced pork and finely chopped preserved radish (
chai por)
- giant shrimp covered with mashed salted egg yolk and deep fried to a crisp

All this was served with a few bowls of rice, a wok-fried rice noodle dish and "
gat zai xi muoi" (lime juice with preserved sour plum) to wash it all down. This feast fit for a king fed eight adults and cost Malaysian Ringgit 280 or S$120+. This is completely unheard of in Singapore, especially for the quality and size of dishes that were ordered. This meal would have easily cost S$400 in Singapore, and the taste would probably have been toned down considerably. As my aunt puts it, Singaporeans become birds when they arrive in Malaysia. All you hear them say is "cheep! cheep!" (translation: cheap, as in highly affordable). It must get quite tiresome for the Malaysians after a while......

cost of living is another factor to consider. My cousin always tells me how much more affordable it is to buy a car, a house, and other material possessions in Malaysia. Granted that wages are considerably lower in Malaysia than in Singapore, but the cost of living is still less than in Singapore.

The only worry I would have about ostentatiously gathering too many material goods is that crime in KL is rapidly rising and one can easily become a middle-income target for petty thieves and organised burglars. Such behaviour also serves to perpetuate the myth that all ethnic Chinese in Malaysia don't require any governmental support because they can "take care of themselves". The truth is, the gap between the haves and the have-nots still remain quite wide, though the ethnicity at the bottom of the economic rung in Malaysia is undoubtedly the Indians.

Finally, one of the most interesting observations to arise from my recent visit to KL is
politics. Singaporeans are probably one of the most depoliticised societies in the world. With no real viable government opposition movement and generally little popular interest in local politics - Singaporeans probably know more about the on-going American election campaigns than what goes on inside Singapore.

For the Malaysians, the recent success of Anwar Ibrahim's re-election to the Parliament in the August has been on everyone's lips. He has since publicly announced his bid to oust the current government by winning over 30 more seats from the ruling coalition - the Barisan Nasional - by Tuesday, 16 September. As of Monday (15 September), Mr Ibrahim already told rally supporters that he had the numbers to defeat the government.

In anticipation of this date, my aunt has rushed off to the supermarket to stock up on some food in case Prime Minister Badawi takes drastic action. Well, he did already - by shipping off 50 of Malaysia's lawmakers to Taiwan on a "study trip" - taking them as far away as possible from Anwar Ibrahim's reach. Then the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) was put to use over the weekend, on a Chinese newspaper journalist (freed shortly after) as well as an opposition lawmaker and anti-government blogger (yet to be released). This then prompted the resignation of the Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim. Little wonder that KL folks can only talk about politics at the moment.

Singaporeans are very fortunate because we have a stable government that has, thus far, looked after our needs if in a paternalistic fashion. On the negative side, we don't have the standard checks and balances to prevent the government from abuse of power. On the positive side, we haven't had any real need to, to date. The struggle for change and a perceived greater good has been replaced by a more self-centred struggle for economic advancement and wealth accumulation. It's the norm for developed nations, but sometimes seems to leave us a little soul-less.

Arriving back into Singapore at dusk - I can't help but observe the clean tidy streets, the gleaming condominiums, and wide sidewalks where Singaporeans are safely going about their business on a Sunday evening. I like not worrying about parking my car outside my gated compound. I like not wondering if I'll be mugged, or fined for "speeding" by a corrupt policeman who'll then take a bribe to release me. Singaporeans have paid the price for this social contract with the government.

I wonder how Malaysians feel when they visit Singapore. Do they think we are a bunch of spoilt, well-to-do neighbours? Do they feel that we are lucky yet ungrateful? Are they star-struck and taken in by the apparent wealth and comfortable standard of living?

Whatever it is, I know that this trip has only served to whet my appetite to learn more about my neighbouring country - a wilder, more liberal (due to lax & corrupt officials rather than lack of legislation) version of Singapore. A version Singapore could have ostensibly evolved into given a different political and economic trajectory.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Moving Pictures

I have always been a big fan of movies ever since I was old enough to watch them.

My earliest memories of movies are linked up closely with my father. I remember Sunday afternoons, spent pleasurably watching old classics and spaghetti westerns like "The Thief of Baghdad" and "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" on TV. Sometimes on weekends, my parents (initiated by my father) would also take me out to watch a late night movie. We watched "The Ten Commandments" - the Cecil B. DeMille classic with one my favourite actors Yul Brynner (then AND now), "The Dawn of the Dead" - which left me crawling into my parents' bed for a week much to their regret, and many other movies.

Back in the day, cinemas still advertised with hand-painted canvases stretched out on the billboards. The cinematic experience was not what it is today - freezing cold air-conditioning, plush velvet seats with headrests, with convenient pockets for holding drinks. Instead, it involved an intermission - during which one had a chance to stretch one's legs after sitting for an hour in a stiff little seat, do a quick trip to the toilet, or visit the kacang putih man for a refill of sugar-coated peanuts.

I'm not sure if our frequent movie-watching stemmed from the fact that the Singapore of my youth was a tiny island with little recreational opportunities. It certainly wasn't for the comfort of the cinema. Whatever it was, the love of the cinema was instilled in me at a young age.

The year I turned 18 was a particularly memorable year for filmgoers in Singapore. That was the year the Singapore government introduced a tiered film rating system, namely the R(estricted) classification - which permitted movies into Singapore that were previously banned due to sexual or violent content. Being "of age" (you had to be 18 or older), I was now old enough to enjoy the "grown-up" movies. Imagine the elation as a sheltered teenager.

The first movie I rushed out to see with my friends was "The Doors", a heady mix of music, drugs and warped love. We then waited with bated breath for the next change - Stanley Kubrik's "Full Metal Jacket" - only to be greatly let down by the government's change in legislation. Introducing the R(A)rtistic classification, you had to be 21 years of age!

Ironically, the R(A) classification allowed a much seamier variant of movies than previously permitted in Singapore. I continued to religiously monitor the movie pages in the newspaper with disgruntlement as I noted the dramatic increase in dubiously titled films with sex thinly disguised as art. Fortunately, Singaporean cinemas were starting to bring in more critically acclaimed movies that I still had access to (albeit no sex, no violence).

The Cathay Organisation led the pack by opening The Picture House - focused on bringing in international films and not necessarily just the big American blockbusters. I was the biggest fan of The Picture House. In the first year of its opening, I must have attempted to watch every single movie that they screened.

Once I went overseas, I revelled in the liberation of watching any and all movies. I developed a better sense of what was on offer in the cinemas. I went through a phase of being a movie snob (art house or nothing baby!), then I slowly gained confidence in my taste until I watched what I truly liked - be it blockbuster chick flick or critical and controversial docu-dramas.

Even now, I need my movie fix at least twice a month, once a week if I can help it. Movies are an outlet. It helps one to dream of distant places, walk in someone else's shoes, even enjoy a more perfect life if just for two hours. For once, the wishy-washy love interest of the female protagonist actually turns to her and says, "I cannot live without you!" when she's had enough of his commitment phobia. The maid from Lower Mahattan catches the eye of a debonair millionaire, who sees beyond her lowly status and instead falls in love with her charming personality. Quarreling couples magically reunite, evildoers get their just desserts, and all's well that ends well.

Many years ago, a statistic I read named Singapore as the country with the highest annual per capita cinema admissions in the world. I'm not sure where we stand now, but Singapore has one of the highest number of 2K resolution digital cinema screens per capita in the world (according to the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore). Clearly the interest in movie-going has not waned, despite many more recreational choices in Singapore now.

As for me, I'll be going to catch Wall.E over the weekend. Dorky little male robot meets sexy, sleek female superbot and falls head over wheels in love.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Leaving My Gilt Cage

Over Singapore's National Day, I took some days off for my annual "grand vacation" (definition being anything longer than a week). It was an epic journey for me - Edinburgh to Côte d'Azur to London. In my 12 days outside of Singapore, I felt like a kid in a candy store - greedily grabbing at all the sights and culture I could fit into my tight travel schedule.

Having been back in Singapore for a little over three years now, I have found it to be a more comfortable, interesting and diverse place to live in than I remember as a teenager. Life in Singapore is like a cocoon - safe, secure, warm and cosy. The cosiness however can sometimes feel a little stifling, and the only way I can redress the balance is to leave the country and re-gain perspective somewhere *not* Singapore.

Admittedly, I was a little star-struck on my recent trip. The Côte d'Azur is breathtakingly beautiful, and I fantasise now and then about cleaning yachts for a living so that I can be that much closer to the waterfront lifestyle. And no, I don't mean One
Degree 15 or Keppel Bay (no offense). You just have to see the Baies des Anges to know what I mean.

Ideally situated by the Mediterranean (sun & sea) and the Alpes-Maritime (sun & hills) - the French Riviera is an inspiring, restorative vacation destination. Dotted with charming medieval villages, hilly winding streets, drinking fountains full of fresh spring water and grand promenades lined with sumptuous candy-coloured palais - the lifestyle is wonderful as well.

The pace of life is slower. Everyone's in vacation mode, taking a leisurely caf
é au lait, watching a game of pétanque. People place emphasis on fresh produce, herbs and spices. Menus are filled with catch of the day this and that. Market places are noisy with shoppers filling their baskets with juicy olives, candied fruit, saucisson, smelly cheeses and wonderful savoury pastries. All in preparation for a nice meal with vin de rosé - a speciality of the Côte - or a touch of absinthe, you choose your poison. You've got to admire the French for this. They invented the concept of slow food!

Little wonder then that many artists of the 20th century (Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Renoir to name but a few...) flocked to the Côte to improve their health or admire the light. It's interesting to see the paintings produced by artists during their stay in the Côte d'Azur.

Two from Picasso I like are his
"Night Fishing in Antibes" and "La Joie de Vivre":

Picasso lived in Antibes towards the end of World War Two with his young 23 year old lover, enjoying life in its fullest. He painted and produced numerous artworks - many of which were then donated to the Musée National Picasso (formerly the Chateau Grimaldi where he lived and worked part of his time on the Côte) in Antibes Juan-les-Pins.

And that's just one of the many stories of great artists who have left their imprint or whose works were influenced by their time in the Côte d'Azur.The French Riviera is undoubtedly an art lover's paradise, with many modern art galleries, impressive public collections (the Maeght Foundation for example) and stunning monuments like the Matisse-designed Chapelle du Rosaire. There is now an itinerary which visitors can follow called "Painters' of the Côte d'Azur". When one only has 3 days, choices and sacrifices have to be made.

For me, I rented a Smart car and drove along the Moyenne Corniche to see some of the most stunning sights along the coast. And all too soon, it was time to fly off to London for a different cultural experience.

My visit to London was also very eventful - though in a very different way. I solicited lots of advice from friends who knew London well, and planned out a back-up itinerary in case I was too lazy to deviate from the plan. As it turns out, the London I visited was nothing like the London I remembered when I was 17! Bewildering to say the least, I packed my days with museums and galleries, classical music and historic walks. I even gave up my two loves: shopping and eating - all to immerse myself in the cultural and historic sights of London.

As incredibly disciplined as I tried to be, "The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting" and "Hadrian: Empire & Conflict" (at the Tate Britain & the British Museum respectively) took me a good two and a half hours each. Then there was the marvellous Tower of London - one of the few tourist attractions great for kids and adults - which I highly recommend to anyone visiting London. And the sobering, sombre St Paul's Cathedral which is well-matched by the Imperial War Museum. During the summer, London also offers a whole slew of interesting cultural activities too, like the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and Shakespeare in the park.

This is not even scratching the surface of what London has to offer. If I had had the luxury of time, I would have wandered the streets at leisure, sought historical landmarks (like Tyburn - place of the public gallows, now situated in SoHo), and visited more galleries and museums. I would have strolled through parks, sat on the grass with a book and a blanket, sunbathing, picnicking with my Pret A Manger or M&S Eats sandwich & salad. I would explored the nightlife more thoroughly. Oh so many more things to do.

I was (still am) star-struck. I also confess to wishing I was living overseas again, perhaps in my beloved Washington DC. O how I miss the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that marked the height of summer...

Having been back home in Singapore for about 3 weeks now - I have been slowly descending from Cloud Nine, though not necessarily in a bad way. Perhaps it takes deprivation to heighten one's appreciation of what one has. I was glad to be back to my zhi-char hor fun and chilli padi for sure. How typically Singaporean you might think, but well - at the end of the day, that is what I am.

But I'll be day-dreaming about that house in the Holland Park Mews, or at least plan for a much longer visit in the not-so-distant future!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Active Aging"

Active Aging. My favourite new Sing-speak catch phrase must've been coined by some expensive ad agency. Who else would think of such pithy (if not always clever) taglines like "Uniquely Singapore" and "Active Aging"?

The official definition of an "active ager" is someone who embraces an active lifestyle within all areas of life: social, intellectual physical, vocational, emotional and spiritual, to the fullest extent possible ( Seems like active aging is for everyone and not just retirees. We spend our lives busily building our careers and earning money that we sometimes forget to balance our lives out with the emotional/spiritual side of things. For me - I am trying to embrace a more balanced, holistic lifestyle. So much so that I didn't have much time to update my blog.

For one, I spent an enjoyable, productive Vesak Day exploring our wonderful little island Pulau Ubin. I finally managed to visit the lovely Chek Jawa, albeit at the completely wrong time (high tide instead of low tide - when the tide pools are visible). Still, there was a lovely ocean boardwalk that wrapped around the periphery of the island, and wound its way through a small mangrove.

In the same week, I saw the young and talented Leila Josefowisz play
Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major under the baton of Estonian conductor Eri Klas. Immediately after, a friend dragged me off to Balaclava where Shirlyn Tan was playing. For the uninitiated, Shirlyn is a Singaporean who sings rock music with her band in various venues.

Over the next weeks, I attended the Giles Peterson's Worldwide Festival in the Fort Canning Park. Never having had the pleasure of attending an open-air concert in Singapore - Fort Canning Park proved to be a really enjoyable experience. High point of the evening for me was probably when a friend and I ran up to join some lively folks on-stage, jumping to the beats of Kruder & Dorfmeister.

It has been a month since my birthday, and I embrace active aging!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud

On Sunday, I watched a movie on the brief life of Ian Curtis called "Control". Co-produced by his wife Deborah Curtis, the film follows the evolution of the Joy Division lead singer from nobody to post-punk cult figure. "Control" revealed Ian Curtis to be a troubled young musician, plagued by epileptic episodes, a failed marriage and depression in spite of his growing success as a performer. In the end, he committed suicide at the young age of 23.

Is life really that unbearable? Is there nothing to look forward to? Why can't we embrace life's
experiences be they pain or pleasure? Doesn't life continue to surprise us in big and small ways? Who knows what Ian Curtis might have achieved in his life had he continued living.

Wordsworth expresses happiness in small pleasures beautifully:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed---and gazed---but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

~ William Wordsworth

Friday, May 9, 2008

Bright Shiny Future

On this, the first day of the rest of my life - I am posting one of my favourite poems for all whose birthdays fall in the month of May.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
may there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.

without her you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

~Konstantinos Kavafis

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Next 5-Year Plan

Another year older, another year wiser or so they say. Well, that remains to be seen. Certainly, I've been a lot more introspective about my life, its direction and what I would like to achieve out of it. Sometimes work takes over, blurs my perspective and ability to think long-term or far ahead. Now is no longer the time to hesitate but to grasp what is before me.

For the past few years, I have led a completely self-indulgent existence. Moving back to Singapore has certainly afforded me that luxury. With this short stretch to 40, I have decided to implement a 5-year plan to put me where I want to be - in a position to fulfill my life's goals.

As I start on my journey of self-fulfillment, one of the things I want to do is to regain a sense of my old self - focused, disciplined, and (yes! believe it or not...) fit. To that effect, I am going to start running again.

Here's a great list of inspirational (and aspirational) races that Singapore has:

31 May 2008 - adidas Sundown Marathon
8 June 2008 - The Saucony 100Plus Passion Run
29 June 2008 - The Lion City Marathon
6 July 2008 - The Citi-Milkrun
20 July 2008 - The Shape Run (all-women's)
24 August 2008 - The Singapore Bay Run
October 2008 (TBA) - New Balance REAL Run
26 October 2008 - The Great Eastern Women 10K (all-women's)
December 2008 (TBA) - The Standard Chartered Marathon

No other form of sports has given me the same tremendous satisfaction and sense of achievement than a long, slow run with my music plugged in (though an hour or so at the driving range is also not bad).

You finally have a real sense of your body - you struggle as your lungs fill with air through exertion, you hear your heart beating and the blood pumping, you feel the slight ache on your foot and calf muscles as they stretch and contract... At the end of it, you're drenched with sweat. Best of all, you've had all that time to think in solitude and quiet - something very rare in a demanding urban setting.

So this is how I propose to set off on the road to 40...with each step propelling me forward, head up, back straight - surging towards the bright, shiny future!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ode To My Little Green Plant

I like reading horoscopes that analyse a person's character. According to my own horoscope (Taurus), I am meant to possess a green thumb and plants of all sorts - part of my "sensual" nature you know. In actuality, I do love many types of flowering and non-flowering plants. Sadly, the ones who have survived my "green thumb" are few and far between. Most are traumatised into retreating into the soil forever, lasting not more than a few months under my care. Except one little green plant, the Ant Plant (aka dischidia pectenoides).

It is a common decorative creeper originally from the Philippines, popular in Singapore during the period leading up to Chinese New Year. The man who sold it to me warned me that it typically dies after 3-4 months. Well, never mind. It looked attractive and cheerful, so I bought it and put it in my bathroom in a sunny spot.

3 Chinese New Years later, my plant is as verdant as ever and, as I discovered, capable of producing little red pod-like "flowers"! What I like best about my little green plant is that it's hardy and has a strong sense of survival. Everyday, it reaches for the sun with its outstretched tendrils and continues to thrive in a simple habitat.

Greenery makes a difference in my life (even if I have a tendency to kill it). Perhaps because I am so horticulturally inept, I consider myself lucky to live in a country that dubs itself the Garden City.

Yes, we have tree-lined streets and roads. Apart from the much-lauded stretch of road "for the tourist" leading from Changi Airport to the heart of Orchard Road, there are many areas of Singapore where flora and foliage are lush and abundant. For example, there are parts of the Pan-Island Expressway and many smaller roads which have majestic arbor "arches" made up of trees like the Angsana (originally from the Philippines) and the Flame of the Forest (originally from Madagascar). Some other roads - especially the Bukit Timah Expressway leading to Mandai Zoo and Johor - are so beautiful and overgrown, it's hard to imagine that we're still in the city-state of Singapore.

Apart from trees, Singapore also has numerous parks and nature reserves for such a little island-nation. On the main island of Singapore, I can count 4 nature reserves and over 40 parks! This is not including Chek Jawa Wetlands on Pulau Ubin, which I have personally been dying to visit.

The Ministry of National Development has also come up with an aggressive plan to continue to transform Singapore's landscape in a significant way. By 2010, not only will Singapore boast of 3 spanking new parks right in the downtown area by the sea called Gardens by the Bay - we will also have park connectors to join up all the parks around Singapore so running and cycling enthusiasts can now literally go around the island surrounded by nature.

The Gardens by the Bay project is particularly exciting. My favourite part of the East Coast Parkway has been closed for more than 2 years due to the commencement of this project, but I am sure that the results will be more than worth it once the parks are completed. I look forward to the day when the Standard Chartered Marathon "Garden Run" in Singapore can truly live up to its name.
Happily for me, Singapore continues to develop and evolve as a "garden city". And happily for all plant life, I will restrict myself to ant plants :)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Langgar Lady Story

On Tuesday night, I was taking the route I always take to go home after dropping off a friend when a car collided into me. Needless to say, after clocking in 12 hours of work - it was a very annoying accident when all one wants to do is go home and rest. After a little finger-pointing, the Langgar Lady and I parted ways with each other's contact details. A little after 24 hours had passed when she called me to accept the blame and pay for the repairs.

We agreed to meet at her recommended auto repair shop to assess my car. Everything was amicable and pleasant, quickly settled within 15 minutes. She then offered me a ride into town where I was scheduled to have a morning meeting. During this ride, I began to learn about the story of the Langgar Lady.

Originally from China, she and I discovered that we both had roots in the province of Fujian. She left her hometown (a little island opposite Taiwan, outside of Fuzhou) and a comfortable life as the daughter of a high-ranking Chinese official at 17 years of age to take a job as a factory worker in Singapore. Since then, Singapore became her home - all of 21 years ago.

As a Singaporean, born and raised here with my inner circle of Singaporean friends, it never fails to surprise me when I discover Chinese of other nationalities among us. Of course these days, Chinese nationals are not really a big deal. They come in by the shiploads. However, Chinese nationals who came over to Singapore 15-20 years ago seem to be relatively rarer, or was it because I never paid attention?

This also reminds me of the time when I went to Bintan with my cousins and the girl who was as sea-sick as I was asked me for some preserved plums (that I desperately sucked on hoping to abate the growing green-ness in my face). It turned out that she is Vietnamese Chinese, who came to Singapore to attend secondary school then never went back. Or the elderly neighbour that we had when I was growing up who, on occasion, would baby-sit me. She walked around in what I now realise was an ao dai, but as a child it never struck me as odd or different.

Singapore is truly a "melting pot" for Chinese of various backgrounds. Perhaps it's easier because ethnic Chinese from all over can blend in easily into Singapore, whether they're from mainland China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia or Indonesia. They live among us, and maybe we recognise them as "Chinese-educated" or "cheena" without fully grasping the fact that they're not raised in Singapore but are recent immigrants.

An expatriate friend once told me that Singapore has no culture, no depth, no history. His explanation is that the English language - a completely foreign and transplanted language - is destroying our inherent culture. What exactly is that culture? Even Chinese ethnicity is a complete misnomer. With so many Chinese of different nationalities all speaking their own versions of the Chinese language (beyond Mandarin we have Cantonese, Hokkien - also known as Min Nan, Teo Chew, Hakka, Hainanese, Hock Chew, Shanghainese, that I can think of off the top of my head), not to mention the Indians with their own diversity of languages - it's little wonder that the government decided to adopt one language to unify everyone.

As Singaporeans, we always struggle with our cultural identity. The truth is - it's hard to pigeon-hole a Singaporean simply because we are an immigrant society with the indigenous Malays making up a minority of the population. And immigration is not just something occurring 80 years ago (which is when my grandmother came to Singapore) and earlier, but continues to on till today with Chinese, Southeast Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans.

Perhaps what we are instead are the quintessential Asians - a cosmopolitan mish-mash of whatever Asia has to offer. The culture is there, so myriad that it's false to squeeze it into the neat little government-created categories of "Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian". And for the taking, if one would only dig a little deeper to hear a person's story.

My thoughts from a little car accident.

* langgar - Bahasa Melayu for "collide"

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Ideal Woman (from the Singaporean male perspective)

I had the misfortune of coming down with a very bad cold, which started in chilly Shanghai, and led me to the doctor's office on Thursday when I was too sick to go into the office. While waiting for my consultation, I chanced upon an article inside Urban entitled "Their Ideal Woman".

What qualities does the Singapore male rank high on his dating list?

Ah. This particular subject has been a topic of hot debate among my friends so - high fever or no - I read on with relish. The result of an informal polling of 85 single men, aged between 16 - 38 years presented this list in no particular order:
  • offers to pay her share on dates
  • pays for her own shopping
  • takes care of her appearance and dresses well
  • able and willing to cook for her partner
  • enjoys hanging out with her partner's male buddies
  • does not become possessive/jealous when her partner hangs out with his female buddies
  • enjoys watching soccer or sports with her partner
  • gets the stamp of approval by friends & family
And here's the kicker ladies: over 3/4s of the respondents rated good grooming and appearance as the Numero Uno Factor for date-ability. Wow. I think most Singaporean women are already really well-groomed - even if they are not stylish, they are at least neatly dressed. So what exactly are we talking about when we say "good grooming"? Like the eye brows can't be too shaggy or something??

I am not sure what other Singaporean women look for in a partner, but I do know that if I had to list 8 qualities to look for in a date - the list would look somewhat different.

My ideal man...
  • isn't uptight about money and who pays because I'm worth it
  • doesn't nag me about shopping because I am paying for it
  • likes me for my sparkling personality and therefore the way I look
  • hires a maid if he wants someone "willing and able" to cook at his pleasure
  • enjoys hanging out with my male and female buddies
  • maintains close ties with his own circle of friends while we are together
  • enjoys the fact that we share common interests but as different individuals, we give each other space to pursue individual interests with each other's support
  • gets the stamp of approval from my friends & family
As for appearances, a lot can be said for chemistry, great personality, wit and intellect. So I get weak-knee'd over a sharp mind. What can I say? I'm just superficial like that ;)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Beginning

My first blog. A time for self-indulgence and expression. I decided to start writing my first post today to commemorate what seems to be an exceptionally pretty day. The sun was strong and hot, the air was pleasantly cool and not too humid, and the sky was full of little cumulus clouds. The light was peculiarly dappling the leaves on the tree outside my office and made me long for the perfect Fall day imprinted in my mind from Washington DC days.

The weather in Singapore is not as I remember it as a child. I used to be frustrated by the humidity and sheer, unrelenting heat from the sun that would beat down upon my head as I trudged home from school. We still have hot, humid, bright days but many more that are tempered by dark clouds and bursts of tropical rain. So much so that I am now able to give up air-conditioning almost entirely and utilise my wonderful ceiling fan.

I am personally a big advocate of the traditional ceiling fan. If I could create a dream home, I would have ceiling fans in every room. Apart from the practical advantages of lower utility bills and less environmental impact, there's something very romantic and nostalgic about the soothing swish of a ceiling fan - evocative of a by-gone era when babies slept in sarongs attached to the ceiling and were rocked by the slight movement of the foot (where the string was attached to).

Having a ceiling fan also means that you open up your windows to the outside world - to hear the sound of birds and insects (ok, and sometimes traffic) and to smell the different smells that waft by the window (the freshness of rain-wet grass, the acridity of smog from burning joss paper).

So thus concludes my first blog. Musings about light, smells, airiness and nothing at all :)