Saturday, 7 April 2007

The Hired Help and Samsui Chicken

I start early. My aim is to be in the office by 7:20 am each morning. I am not however the first to get there as the cleaning staff commence their duties a good quarter hour before my arrival.

The cleaners are in the main a mix of Malays and Indians as well as a smattering of Chinese "Aunties" seeking extra retirement income. What I didn't fully appreciate was that many of our cleaning staff don't actually live in Singapore - they reside in Malaysia's state of Johore Bahru and come across The Causeway each day to take up their employment.

Their day starts at 7 am and doesn't finish until 7 pm (Monday to Saturday) and they then face a two hour bus journey back across the border. I questioned one of the younger Indian cleaners and discovered that she rises at 3:20 am each morning to ensure she catches her bus. She doesn't usually get back to her home until about 9:30 pm so by my calculation ,after completing a full days work, she gets about five and a half hours sleep before the cycle starts all over again.

It is therefore little wonder that there is a high staff turnover and our cleaning contractors are recruiting replacements all the time.

But why is it necessary for 25,000 Malaysians to cross the border to fulfill these necessary services? The short answer is that few, if any, Singaporeans wish to underatke these menial tasks anymore.

The same applies to other service areas and the construction industry. To overcome this shortage Singapore has an active policy of fostering 'foreign manpower'. These are temporary residents and in the year 2000 government statisitics indicated that 29% of the workforce were in this category.

Not to be forgotten are the 160,000 domestic helpers, mainly comprised of women from the Philippines and Indonesia, although there are also a significant number from the Indian sub continent. The former gather each Sunday at Lucky Plaza and spill out onto the footpaths of Orchard Road in gregarious huddles.

Today's food recommendation is The Soup Restaurant in Basement Two of Centrepoint on Orchard Road. The set lunch for two is $38++ and has a wonderful home-cooked quality to it with traditional (they term it heritage) cuisine of the Cantonese variety. Despite the name, soup it just one hearty component of the menu and their Samsui Ginger Chicken is excellent. Their sliced cod dish is equally yummy!

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Here's To You In Robinsons

Here's to you in Robinsons - artist Roger Smith

I visited Robinsons Department store in Orchard Road over the weekend and by chance discovered these wrapped mannequins which I have used as the basis for this print.

The Escape
- artist Roger Smith

Down their corridor enroute to the public conveniences were more boxed dummies. This inspired the second print.


The thunder grey above the fronds
silent birds
signaling a time for shelter

Saturday, 31 March 2007

The Cold Shoulder

Early last week I awoke with a shoulder that refused to work and when I attempted to use it, proved to be extremely painful. I was apparently one of the 'lucky 2%' 0f the population that succumbs to an ailment called Frozen Shoulder or, if you want its medical title, adhesive capsulitis.

Until you lose the use of a limb you are never truly aware just how debilitating it can be. Everyday tasks become mountains to climb and sleep becomes elusive. I was never even aware such a condition existed but I have subsequently discovered scores of web sites dedicated to the subject.

I did however have one ace up my sleeve, in the form of a great physician, Dr. Toh who is based in the Camden Medical Centre (photo left) .

Toh Keng Kiat is one of the old school of doctors who actually listens to his patients and has the experience to provide sound advice. He is also very keen on using new technologies where they might assist and he hooked me up to the latest Japanese machine.
For those interested its full title is: ASIAS, AH 300 series, Encoded Electronics Therapy Equipment (see image below)

This amazing device provides pain relief and heals tissues etc. down to the basic DNA building blocks. It should not be confused with the much simpler electropulse massagers which simluate acupuncture techniques

Frozen shoulder can take months to correct but three sessions with the electropulse device have seen me regain more than 80% mobility in the past few days. The fact that I can type this blog entry is largely down to him.

In our conversations I also became aware that is a former Singaporean MP and he provides some interesting perspectives on the challenges that lie ahead for Singapore.

Dr Toh is a visiting consultant haematologist at Singapore General Hospital and also crosses the Causeway to tutor medical students at Monash's Johore Bahru campus in Malaysia. All in all a busy man and I consider myself lucky to be under his care.

Today is my first working Saturday in Singapore. The library is open from midday until 7pm each Saturday during the semester and we take it in turns on the management roster. It would be fair to record that we have not exactly been inundated with students thus far! In fact we are lucky if one appears at all.

With seven hours to kill I have taken the opportunity to update the Image Gallery I am building for the university. Our large screen television in the Library has also provided me with coverage of Aussie Rules and NRL games so time passed relatively easily.

I can now look forward to the Monday off and shopping in Singapore without the accompanying weekend crowds.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Avian Aspirations

In the late 70's I spent three years on contract working in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. As so often happens, one remembers most of the more interesting times and forgets much of the rest. A highlight for me was a trip in my Landcruiser up the Highlands Highway to Wabag and a two night stay at the lodge there.

The lodge consisted of thatched huts and I recall that the tradionally-clad cook delivered an inspired western style three course meal complete with carrots in a white sauce. The other thing I vividly recall was a visit to a nearby nature reserve to view the many and varied Birds of Paradise.

I hadn't seen a Bird of Paradise since, until yesteday when we paid a visit to the Jurong Bird Park here in Singapore.

To get there we took the MRT to Boon Lay, the last stop on the line and then boarded the 194 bus from the interchange which is right next to the station. This took us directly to the park.

Having been in the museum / heritage business I am always judgemental when it comes to such attractions but I have to record that the $20 (which included a monorail ride around the park) admission price was well worth it.

Jurong Bird Park is a tastefully and thoughtfully operated attraction and conservation values are skilfully integrated into their displays. Be warned though, even with strategically placed fans, on a hot day such as it was yesterday it can be quite exhausting if you choose to walk everywhere.

The highlight is undoubtedly the huge Waterfall Avery (photo above) and this is also a very goood place to pause on your journey through the park as it offers a shady respite from the Singapore sun. If you are visiting Singapore, or are living here and have visitors, then a visit to the Jurong Bird Park is well worth the effort and a colourful introduction to tropical flora and fauna.

'Flamingo' watercolour - Jurong. Artist Roger Smith

We did not lunch at the Park and decided to have a look around the adjacent neighbourhood to see if there were dining alternatives. A walk across the car park from the Bird Park brought us to the Reptile Park and what a sorry state of affairs this former attraction was. It had obviously closed down sometime before and was rapidy decaying in the tropical environment. Only a small prawn restaurant survives nearby with a few locals fishing for their supper - yes you had to catch the prawns yourself.

The Reptile Park provides a salutory lesson for all attractions - that they either adapt or die. It is a lesson that no doubt the Jurong Bird Park is well aware of.

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!