Sunday, 29 April 2007

Cruising in Calcutta

Five days ago our Library staff were invited to lunch in the Tiffin Room at Raffles. I had been to Raffles once before, but only to wander around and visit the coffee shop.

This time we were treated to the full splendour of the grand old building. The Tiffin Room features Indian cuisine from the days of the Raj in the form of the Tiffin Curry Buffet.

It's about now that I have to confess that Indian food is not high on my preferred list. Apart from the fact that it is often very rich and full of gee, there is another reason to my losing any real interest in Indian food - namely a visit to India a few years ago.

As I have recounted this story verbally many times since, I thought it wise to record the detail for posterity!

I was once an executive member of the International Council of Museums Marketing and Public Relations Committee (ICOM MPR). It was our habit to meet in various far flung parts of the globe on an annual basis and one year we received and accepted an invitation to hold our meeting in Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now known.

When the British decided to move their capital to Delhi in 1911 it was all down-hill for the infrastructure of Calcutta from that historic moment . Indeed, I have it on good authority that town planners from as far a field as New York come to Calcutta to study what happens to a major city after 80 years of amenity neglect.

It was into this environment that our happy band of museologists went. Things did not start well as the deposit money for the hotel, sent in advance via the local Museum for payment, had "disappeared". It miraculously re-appeared after much ranting and threatening from our then President.

It got progressively worse after the third powercut in the hotel, experiencing the theft of some personal items from my conference bag and a minor traffic accident in a taxi. In the latter case, both the drivers of our vehicle and the car that we 'rear-ended', had adopted the practice of driving around the streets at night without their lights to save their battery power. They only flicked the beam on when they saw another vehicle approaching on their side of the road.

The 'highlight' of our weeks stay was to be the Hooghly Dinner Cruise, hosted by a senior member of the Indian Museum profession. The date duly arrived and we traipsed on board the vessel. There was a near mutiny when it was discovered that our sailing date was a "dry day" in Bengal and so no liquor could be served - not even a glass of wine with the meal.

The River Hooghly at dusk has all the charm of a slow moving cess pit. As we surged into the current the factories on either bank belched out purple and green smoke reminiscent of a scene from Dante's Inferno. The dinner was a buffet and pre-prepared. It was presented in covered silver tureens with small spluttering candles underneath that were doing their best to keep the food warm.

A light wind got up cooling both the ambient temperature and the food we were about to consume. The light wind became a small zephyr and the candles went out.

The locals were inordinately proud of a new structure called the New Hoorah Bridge and the structure was pointed out to us many times and from many different angles. This should not be confused with the Old Hoorah Bridge of which more will shortly be said. The New Bridge can be seen in the top photograph and looks more aesthetic in the photo than it did in the flesh.

I made the mistake of looking over the edge of the second deck where we were seated, down to the deck below. There were three beaming waiters looking up at me as they squatted below with our evening's silver cutlery strewn on the wooden planking (picture above). This was to be the very silverware we were expected to use for the buffet and one look at the dirty deck convinced me that I had better polish my own provided set with a clean tissue and bottled water before partaking of any food.

The air got thicker and people reached for their handkerchiefs (see photo of my colleague Barbara with masked face).

Up ahead the atmosphere was really hazy and we could just discern the outlines of what appeared to be a bridge, its outline almost obscured by the a heavy mist.

We were approaching the Old Howrah Bridge which is reputed to be the busiest in the world with more than 100,000 vehicles and 1 million pedestrians crossing it each day. This figure does not include the livestock that accompanies them. Even in 1946 (shortly after it opened) there were 3,000 cattle moving across it.

The mist we had observed was in fact a steady stream of dirt and debris from the bridge and we were about to sail under it.

With immaculate timing and just as we passed under the first span, the waiters removed the protective silver covers of the buffet service.

All aboard lost their appetite at that point in time which was hardly surprising.

Travel in India is to be experienced but is seldom enjoyed in its entirety. Endless meals of chick peas, dhal and undercooked chicken took their toll on even the strongest constitution and after a week in Calcutta we were ready to leave and see other parts of the country.

You will understand then that I brought to the Indian Curry Buffet at Raffles a certain prejudice, which I am pleased to record was ill -founded. The food was delicious and to a standard that would I am sure have pleased the likes of former guests, Kipling and Somerset Maugham.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Candy Floss

Like a man
spinning straw into gold
you stand

mutlicolour sugar-sweet
and a hand
that stirs beneath the rim

under a sapping sun
umbrella overhead and
excited voices
next in line

Roger Smith February 2003

The white flower of death

the white flower of death
she said
flowering with a perfume
beguilingly sweet

The yellow tongued entry
to another world
as yet not still

Your frailty disturbs my conscience
and daily patterns
the green mottling of leaves
next to the constantly damp earth
where the lizard lurks

Roger Smith August 2003

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Let's hear it for St Luke

I was not aware until coming to live in Singapore that the apostle was also the patron saint of prickly heat. At least I suspect this is the case, as his name adorns a well known brand of powder designed to combat the sweatiness of the tropics.

The title also suggests a British pedigree but this powder which was formulated sixty years ago is actually produced in Thailand. It is marketed in other parts of the world under the Snake brand.

St Lukes Prickly Heat powder has one disturbing problem - it is mentholated. An overly liberal application to the nether regions can leave the unfortunate crying out to their maker. Perhaps this is where the true religious association comes from?

Which brings me none to subtly to the point that we have been living in Singapore for more than six months and our bodies are acclimatising. Two weeks ago we stopped using the airconditioning throughout the night in our bedroom and now sleep with a fan in perpetual motion instead.

This is not to say that either of us actually enjoy the very draining effect of the humidity, especially from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

However a quick glance at the minimum temperatures on the internet remind me of just how miserably cold a New Zealand winter can be, so I am not complaining too much.

A case in point. Today we took buses to the Singapore Botanical Gardens leaving as the sun reached its zenith. There was not a breath of wind when we got there and apart for one or two of the lunatic fringe who were out jogging ( yes, jogging!) in the noon day sun, everyone else was seeking the shade. The shade seekers included clusters of Filipinas who, released from their maids' duties on a Sunday afternoon, congregate for picnics in the Gardens.

It was Sir Stamford Raffles who established the first Botanical Gardens in Singapore in 1822. His interest was largely economic as he wanted to establish the viability of crops such as cocoa and nutmeg. The existing gardens were established on their current site a little later, in 1859.

I vividly recall my first visit to the Singapore Botanic gardens in the early 1980's as I was cornered by a troupe of monkeys, baring their teeth and demanding to be fed.
These Macaques became such a problem that they were removed (exterminated?) and no longer harass visitors. They remain a problem in other parts of Singapore, especially where housing estates border wildlife reserves.

The highlight of our trip today was the National Orchid Garden, a feature in its own right within the boundaries of the Botanic Gardens. A $5 entry fee gets you into this garden. The orchid is the national flower of Singapore and it is easy to see why.

There are some examples at the bottom of this page.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

New Images from Vivo City

We spent much of the day at Vivo City today which is down at Harbourfront overlooking Sentosa Island. This was not without some consternation as The Great Navigator inadvertently placed us on the wrong bus. Near Chinatown TGN and I realised the errors of our ways and took the MRT back to the correct location.

Here are some prints that were taken with the 3 megapixel camera in my new phone. I realised later that barely five years ago I was using a 3 megapixel Fuji camera, which was then state of the art. How the technology has advanced since then.

Lime Mao - Artist Roger Smith

Fountain - Artist Roger Smith

Pool Legs - Artist Roger Smith

Monday, 16 April 2007

Out With The Old

It goes in cycles - one item of property 'gives up the ghost' and then a second, a third and so on.

So it has been here in Singapore. Fortuitously this city is a shopping mecca and finding a replacement for any item is relatively easily and usually the latest model is featured.

A fortnight ago I adopted my wife's sensible suggestion (one that she had made many times before!) that I jettison my heavy attaché case and buy something lighter. I am now the proud owner of a soft leather case of Japanese design which is about half the weight of the former one.

Seven days ago my watch, which caused sane jewellers to shake their heads in dismay every time I had it serviced, took on an even more decrepit look. Its winder threatened to detach from the inner mechanism. I opted for a new Seiko as a replacement as value for money they bettered the Swiss versions. Most other new models on offer were so chunky that every elevation of the wrist reminded one of lifting weights in the gym.

I had also promised myself the replacement of a further piece of technology - my IPAQ (PDA if you will). This replacement came sooner than expected as my mobile phone, which I had brought over from New Zealand, developed a fault. Rather than buy a new phone and a new IPAQ, I seized the moment to buy a device that combined both.

My new "brain in a box" is an IPAQ rw6828 Multimedia Messenger (see image). It does just about everything except cook crumpets. About a year from now I hope to have discovered all of its functionality and features.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

...Maketh The Man

I can't remember when I had my first meal of Phoenix Claws but I can certainly recall my first Yum Cha meal in Hong Kong.

On that occasion in a multi-floored restaurant, bemused by the loud vitality of the eatery and not being able to read or understand a word of Cantonese, I summoned up courage and pointed at the first wicker basket atop a passing trolley.

With a deft movement my card was marked both literally and figuratively. A steaming container of Duck's web (feet) was placed in front of me. No other part of the duck was attached to the feet - it was just the webs with no strings (should that be tendons?) attached.

While not the easiest of introductions to Yum Cha I record with pride that I did at least attempt to eat these items. Which brings me to Phoenix Claws - a euphemism for chickens' feet. Evidently, the only real trick to preparing these is that you trim off the toenails first!

I discovered early on that I rather enjoyed this delicacy but one has to choose the company in which to devour these glutinous morsels. A former colleague who once shared a table turned a decided shade of green when he saw me devouring the contents of the small bamboo basket and never again accepted my invitation to Yum Cha.

Over the years I have learnt the staccato skill of spitting the left over bones with unnerving accuracy into my rice bowl. This is the Chinese way. My English mother would have been mortified by such a practice as she drummed into her children the elements of refined English table manners and the removal of bones was neither to be seen nor heard.

It is interesting how living in a different culture brings with it different customs and manners. I am sure that I unintentionally offend through my lack of knowledge in such fundamentals as chopstick etiquette . The reckless placement of these eating utensils is thought to bring bad luck to your fellow diners.

I can assure you that learning to expel a stream of chicken bones into a tiny receptacle can be equally distressing for those who witness it.

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