Thursday, 15 March 2007

The Brilliantined Babu and Callisthenic Carol

I seem fated to sit down wind from people. If there is a seat at a bus stop and I am the sole occupant, invariably the next arrival will position themselves between me and the prevailing breeze.

As you may well presume there are disadvantages in this unfortunate juxtaposition, especially when the sun is at its zenith and my new neighbour has run breathlessly to catch the next bus.

There are products on the supermarket shelves of Asia that once similarly graced the groceries of the western world but no longer do so. Bay Rum is a classic fragrance that brings back childhood memories of barbershops and cut-throat razors. It is a fragrant toilet water with a long history and is made from the oil extracted from the leaves of the Bay tree.

Brilliantine (image left) is another that I had long forgotten but seems never to have gone out of fashion in parts of Asia . I have discovered that there are several different varieties and fragrances ranging from the century-old, Pashana Original whose principal binding ingredient is glycerine, to various others types with combinations of rosemary and sage, blended with castor oil.

Its overly-liberal use is much favoured by some members of the local Indian community and each morning I have a mildly obese gentleman with coiffured and slicked-down locks who obscures my view of oncoming buses.

Another morning favourite of mine is a Chinese lady I have affectionately christened "Callisthenic Carol". She makes her way to the bus stop with regimented regularity, timing her arrival so as to allow her to undertake a set of vigorous warm-up exercises behind the bus shelter. Her flailing arms and muted grunts of exertion are a marked contrast to the posture of the sedentary Babu.

Incidentally, I use the term Babu in its Indian derivation not that of the Taiwanese, where the same name is given to an icecream cart.

Using the public transport of Singapore is a great way to meet the real people of this country. The MRT is often too packed to take in the personalities and private cars tend to shield one from the rest of the world. Buses are our preferred mode of transport.

Yesterday we took the 970 bus to Holland Village. Up until then I had largely resisted any temptation to frequent expatriate haunts. Holland Village is one such location. Having come to Singapore to live with the locals, a visit to this part of town was not high on the agenda. However I must confess that the experience was enjoyable and a I succumbed to a large steak meal at the Hogs Breath Brasserie - they also served a large green salad on the side which was delicious.

And there wasn't the slightest whiff of Bay Rum anywhere!

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Saucy Tales

Three days ago we held the last event for our university's orientation week - a traditional 'Aussie barbeque'. As with the cricket match mentioned in the previous posting, the barbeque further highlighted the cultural values of our Australian-sponsored institution in its new Singaporean environment.

As Singaporeans enjoy food of all varieties we were on to a winner before the first 'snarler' hit the embers. Most students would have experienced barbequed food but few would have tried the 'dinkum' Australian version.

I am pathologically ill disposed towards vegetarian food that attempts to masquerade as the 'real thing' and I include so-called vegetarian sausages in this aversion. At the barbeque three types of sausage were provided - beef, pork and vegetarian. The latter had the texture of sawdust and a taste to match.

Interestingly, at the event's conclusion the only food remaining in any quantity were the vegetarian sausages, which I guess tells us something.

There was another surprise as we prepared our food for consumption. Most aficionados of Aussie tucker will tell you that you can't have a sausage without tomato sauce to smother it. Most Kiwis will tell you exactly the same. Our food caterers entered into the spirit of the occasion by providing extra large bottles of sauce, or at least that is what we supposed them to be.

The first person in the food queue soon discovered that the providers had not completely understood the menu and had instead provided tomato juice. The result was a very sodden bun that was barely edible. Our salvation was the discovery of two bottles of the 'real thing' which someone else had kindly provided.

The barbeque was a great success and a credit to our senior staff, who entered into the spirit of the event and collectively turned their hands to operating the barbeques.

Today being a Sunday, we ventured out of our condo to have lunch in town.

At the risk of turning into yet another Singapore food blog, can I mention the Lao Beijing restaurant on the third floor of Plaza Singapura. "Lao" means old and this restaurant specialising in the simple, classical food of Beijing and Northern China.

Their handmade noodles were excellent with a nice firm texture and nourishing broth. I consider this luncheon further preparation for a trip later in the year to the Chinese capital.

Noodles have been around a very long time, well before the ubiquitous instant noodle graced our supermarket shelves. In 2005, archaeologists dug up the remains of neolithic noodles which were 4,000 years old.

Today's "lao" noodles were thankfully not as old as these!

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Simply Not Cricket

I work for an Australian university that is establishing itself here in Singapore and this week is D Day (or more precisely "O" Week) when our first students arrive for their orientation.

Quite naturally we retain a certain 'Ozzie' flavour in our programmes and approach to education so it came as no surprise to see that a cricket match was scheduled as part of the week long activities. An invitation has been issued to any staff member who understands terms such "square leg" and "googly" to step forward and join the team.

Not surprisingly most of my Singaporean colleagues seem somewhat bemused by the cricket jargon and Australian fixation for this game.

This year I shall not be taking up the invitation to participate but shall cheer from the sidelines. There is a reason for this - my last cricket outing forty years ago ended in somewhat humiliating circumstances.

I was a fifth former at a New Zealand boarding school at the time and a good rugby player although only adequate at cricket. I came from a cricketing family and my father had been a provincial captain, so a I recall that in my infancy our family often travelled to cricket matches to watch my father's team compete. Very pleasurable memories they were to as the journey home often meant fish and chips wrapped in newspaper was the evening fare.

By the fifth form I had managed to wheedle myself into the Fourth Eleven. To celebrate this elevation my father bought me a pair of white leather cricket boots. Nowadays cricketers wear much lighter footwear but in the '60's heavy white, leather lace-ups where all the fashion and they had small metal sprigs in the sole for grip.

One had to install the sprigs oneself and I was given implicit instruction on where to place them and the need to hammer them firmly home. I spent considerable time positioning the sprigs and considerably less time hammering them in.

Came the day of the match on the Gully ground and I was ordered to bat in the middle order, such was the confidence of my team mates in my abilities. There were no artificial pitches in those days and the wicket was overlayed with mats made out of woven jute to protect the grass underneath.

My moment arrived with our team struggling to meet the opposition's first inning total and the need for a 'solid knock' from the middle order. I strode purposely to the crease, surveyed the surrounding fielding position and faced the first ball.

To my surprise, the opposing team's bowler was a worse player than I. His first ball was so slow that it allowed me to connect with it and hit it to the boundary - a most respectable 'four' was recorded and my team mates sat up and took notice. It would be stretching the truth to say that they were awe struck, but as they had never seen me score in this fashion before it was no doubt somewhat of a novelty.

Play continued with the odd darting run between the wickets and several other boundaries. I actually started to enjoy myself and was brimming with confidence as I reached a score of twenty six.

Could this be the start of a century partnership? Alas it was not to be.

The very next ball was delicately nudged past the slip fielders requiring a quick single between the wickets. It was at this moment that my ill-hammered sprigs ruined my ambition. Down the wicket I sprinted, bat in glove. Half way to my destination a loose sprig went through the weave of the jute, bringing me to an immediate halt. Such was my momentum that I pitched forward, midway down the wicket . Try as I might, I could not extract my boot from the jute and was run out.

Five minutes later after I had unlaced the boot and the groundsman had been called to extract it from the wicket, I limped off a cricket pitch for the last time, to the accompanying cat calls and hoots of laughter from friend and foe alike.

So this coming week I shall be watching from the sidelines and admiring the skills of my Indian colleagues as they and I enjoy the crack of ball on willow.

That is of course if it doesn't rain.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Making 'Hei' While The Sun Shines and Funky Gibbons

Yesterday our staff celebrated Loh Hei, which involves the very pleasurable pursuit of tossing large quantities of raw fish and vegetables into the air while reciting various auspicious sentiments related to the New Year desire for prosperity, health and general well being.

You are a natural 'tosser' I hear you say, so you would be in your element. Quite so!

The above mentioned vegetable/fish dish is actually named Yee Sang and the Lo Hei which is one of the statements made as one's chopsticks are held aloft, refers to liveliness, prosperity and longevity.

Newcomers to this ritual were well briefed by one of our Chinese Singaporean colleagues although I should record that some were a little too enthusiastic in their aerial acrobatics as growing piles of noodles on the floor bore testament.

As a staff bonding session it sure beats the more conservative European team building exercises much beloved by management consultants.

Do, Do, Do the Funky Gibbon was a lyric from a song of the same name by the Monty Python cast.

Even though the song is never likely to make a come back to the charts, gibbons are very much to the fore at the Singapore Art Museum.

Late morning we payed our first visit to the converted St Joseph's College (above) and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibitions.

Chen Wen Hsi was a pioneer artist in Singapore and mastered both traditional Chinese and Western art forms and media.

He had a fascination with birds and animals and his gibbon and wading birds paintings were very stimulating and full of life.

The other thing that impressed me about the SAM was the permanent collection of South East Asian art.

A very impressive addition to the Museum was the Venezia Cafe where I enjoyed their lunch special of a generous helping of Slipper Lobster linguini, soup, bread and coffee for $15++.

The Slipper Lobster was not wearing any footwear but did resemble the Australian Morton Bay Bug and I suspect that its name comes from the splay of its tail which does vaguely resemble a slipper.

We will definitely return to the SAM from time to time to take in the exhibitions. The 111 bus from outside our condominium took us practically on the museum's doorstep so we are fortunate with the public transport.

On the way back we dropped into Deli France and picked up some of their discounted chicken patties, which we had previously observed drop to $1 in price after 1pm.

Tonight is the big Chingay parade down Orchard Road. Although the event is now largely associated with Singapore, it actually started as a float parade in Penang in 1905.

I watched the show on television and then quite by chance discovered the Malaysian equivalent on their television channel. The Malacca Chingay appealed to me more as it retained a focus on the traditional Chinese performances associated with the New Year. The repetition of unstructured 'dances' by community groups in the Singaporean parade made it a bit tedious. That said, Singapore had floats and Malacca did not.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

"Genting" - Limited Edition Print

Genting - limited edition print
Artist - Roger Smith

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

A Gentle Genting Caper

We have just returned from four days away; a quick respite from the heat of Singapore. Our destination of choice was the Genting Highlands which is an hours drive away from Kuala Lumpur or seven hours if you did what we did and went by coach from Singapore itself.

We decided to beat the Chinese New Year crowds and went two days before the festivities commenced. This would give us a fair chance of getting a reasonably room on a non-smoking floor of the rather optimistically named, First World Hotel.

We rose at an ungodly hour to ensure that we got to the Queens Street bus terminal in time for the 6:30 departure. The cab we booked for 5:30 am arrived early and so when we got to the terminal (which was in fact a dilapidated shed with a grimy window) it was not yet 6 a.m. Our plans for buying some breakfast evaporated as nothing was open. Eventually, while I guarded the suitcase, my wife managed to find an open shop in a nearby street.

The luxury coach was a double decker and we passengers were accommodated on the upper level. The bottom level seemed to be largely occupied by a day bed for the driver and our luggage shared the same space. The bus's brochure proudly proclaimed that it had reclining seats. I now know this to be true, as the catch on my seat was faulty resulting in me travelling the entire journey in a reclining position. Not that I was complaining as the early start to the morning made this a most pleasant position to be in.

The roads in Malaysia are excellent and maintained through revenue gathered at toll stations along the way. The landscape is dominated by oil palm plantations which is one of Malaysia's foremost industries.

We had two stops enroute and a meal in Yong Ping where I purchased and attempted to digest probably the worst bau (steamed bun) I have ever tasted. As will all such bus halts, the prices were steep by local standards. The Malaysian Ringgit is about 2.2 to the Singapore dollar.

Having passed through the outskirts of K.L. we climbed rapidly into the Genting Highlands and there looming above us was the multi-hued, Colditz of gambling and theme park gratification, the First World Hotel. Because of the altitude it was almost permanently mantled with cloud which made the entire complex a most surreal apparition (see picture left).

For the first two days we had a relaxing time enjoying the coolness of the air which is a marked contrast to the humidity and heat of Singapore. However on the eve of Chinese New Year the experience changed dramatically with a huge influx of guests, many of whom seemed to be on cheap package tours from China.

The hotel has 6,000 rooms and each one seemed to have an extended family in it. Every second person was a chain smoker and even on our "non-smoking" floor the occupants flagrantly ignored the rules and smoked as and when they wished. None of the staff seemed either able or willing to police the non smoking ban. The great irony was that the lobby was meant to be smoke free but other public places such as the casinos and eateries were not. This meant that non smokers such as ourselves and the staff, were subjected constantly to second hand smoke and our clothes and skin stank on cigarettes by day's end.

It is not a good omen that one of the successful bidders for the Singapore Integrated Resorts - to be built on Sentosa - is the Genting Group who own and operate the Genting Highlands resort. I hope that Singapore government takes a very tough stand and bans smoking from the start, to protect the staff who work there and patrons in general from the insidious danger of passive smoking.

The trend world wide is move to a smoke free environment and in New Zealand smoking is banned in all restaurants and public places such as casinos. Australia is moving in a similar direction and despite the protestations of the gambling industry, revenue barely dipped with the strict introduction of such policies.

Our room in the First World Hotel was small and basic. If we stayed again we would pay more and upgrade to a World Club room which are more spacious and better appointed. No air conditioning was in evidence nor required as the climate was pleasantly cool. We even called for an extra blanket.

The food experience throughout the entire resort was sub standard. Breakfast in the hotel's eight floor restaurant was cattle class chaos. People milling everywhere, self help toasters with elements so poor they required four passes through the machine to get anything resembling toast, 'hot' buffet that contained some dishes that were decidedly chilled, watered down fruit juices and fellow diners without a skerrick of table manners between them!

Food outlets in the resorts were also marginal with the possible exception of Kenny Roger's Chicken and a local variation called Marry Brown. No, this is not a spelling mistake, it is Marry not Mary.

I had only been to Genting once before and that was twenty years ago when there was but one hotel/casino. The theme park and the other hotels are more recent developments with the park itself being a very popular destination for children and are of comparable standard to those in the States.

Chinese New Year entertainment was not that inspired but we did view a traditional Lion dance as well as some singing groups who performed on the public stages.

Lessons to be learned from our holiday?

Firstly don't travel to a Chinese-oriented resort during Chinese New Year as the crowds are indeed madding.

Secondly, pay a bit more and stay in a better class of room. The climate was certainly invigorating - the smoking was not.