Saturday, 19 May 2007

A Day At The Races

"Don't do it..."

"Don't go.........You'll find out why when you get there"

This is common advice proffered to which I have now learnt to respond, " Have you been there or experienced this yourself?"

Almost invariably the answer is "No... but a friend of mine........."

And so it was when the subject of the Singapore races was raised with an acquaintance of ours. We had thought it might be interesting to go to Kranji and experience the wonders of the Singapore Turf Club. His endorsement was a luke warm at best.

Fortunately we ignored this second hand advice. I should mention at this junction that my wife and I are not what you might term 'hardened punters'. We never place a bet unless it is on a racecourse and our visits to such places are very rare - perhaps once in three years.

When the fire siren in our neighbourhood signalled 11 am (as it does every Saturday) we packed our bottled water and newly-purchased binoculars and headed for the Queenstown MRT station down the road.

Our train took us to Jurong East junction where we changed to the green line and proceeded towards our destination.

Kranji's more sobering claim to fame is the Kranji War Memorial which contains 4,000 graves of servicemen who died under Japanese occupation.

Alighting at the station we confirmed that the racecourse was immediately opposite and linked by a covered way. No exposure to the hot midday sun which was a real plus.

We had a choice of paying a $3 entrance fee or $7 for the air-conditioned, covered stand. I don't have to explain which option we decided upon. Up the escalator and into air conditioned bliss.

I had been concerned that smoking would be allowed in the 2nd storey area but this proved to be an unnecessary worry. We went through the electronic turnstiles and found ourselves seats with a good view of the winning post. Here we paused to do justice to a large bowl of noodles before getting down to studying the form in the racebook we had purchased - another $3 painlessly extracted by a smiling Singaporean vendor.

The facilities were first class with large video screens providing commentary and analysis as well as results - which seldom went our way! Not even a passing thunderstorm changed the odds in our favour and we went home a little lighter in the pocket than when we came.

All in all it was most pleasant day out and an experience that I would recommend to others.

"Have you been there....?"

"Well yes, actually I have"

Monday, 14 May 2007


Yesterday, we paid a quick visit to Sentosa Island. It has been nearly twenty years since I was last there and all I recall from the previous visit was the bike hire facility and dusty tracks.

The Sentosa of today is a far more vibrant place with reclaimed, sandy beaches and escalators for those who feel disinclined to trudge up the steep gradient to the lookout.

Getting to the island is also much easier and we opted for the monorail or Sentosa Express as it is known. A $3 return ticket provides a choice of options for transport as it allow you not only the monorail but also a range of free buses and the Siloso beach tram.

I noted that the wrecking ball was already swinging in preparation for the Sentosa Integrated Resort. This is planned to open in 2010 but knowing Singapore's project efficiency I would not be surprised if a section of it opens earlier. Building sites here run 24 X 7 with no down time for public holidays. The night shift seamlessly makes way for the day shift in a never ending cycle.

Singaporeans enjoy packing a picnic lunch and spending time on the Sentosa beaches and the place remains a tourist mecca.

We visited one of the attractions - that is, we paid an entry fee. Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom was interesting and a good introduction to the wonderful array of 'bugs & butterflies' one sees in the tropics. Some of the live exhibits in the outside enclosure were a little 'moth-eaten' if you will excuse the pun. A good web site for Singapore butterfly identification is at this address .

We will undoubtedly make a repeat visit to Sentosa in the near future. It is a breath of fresh air away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.

Sincere Mattresses and the Appellation Hinterland

The sign said Sincere Mattress Company.

It made me wonder just what a 'sincere mattress' actually is. I have possibly experienced an 'insincere mattress' in the past, one that pretends to provide a good nights sleep and delivers not a jot, but a 'sincere mattress'...never .

The moniker, 'Sincere Mattress' is just one of many titles that appear to the western eye to be an odd juxtaposition of English names.

My all time favourite was a sign I spotted in Malaysia many years ago - Ah Choo's Medical Centre. For non-native speakers of English, the language is enough to give anyone an allergy.

A close second in the 'believe it or not' signage stakes was the Swastika Piles Clinic, also seen in Malaysia.

Here are some others I enjoyed, gleaned from various sources:

  • Teeth extracted by latest methodists - Hong Kong Dentist

  • Mickey Mouse High Fashion Apparel - Beijing department store

  • You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid - Tokyo Hotel

  • Ladies may have a fit upstairs - Hong Kong Tailor

  • For your convenience, we recommend courageous, efficient self-service - Hong Kong supermarket

The mistranslation of English can have a more serious side and in China (more particularly Beijing where the Olympics are being held) they are endeavouring to clean up their signage translation.

Then of course there are signs in Asia, such as the one above that I photographed in the back streets of Calcutta, which do not fill one with confidence.

Friday, 11 May 2007


For many years I have collected the songs of one singer - Teresa Teng. She has regrettably 'shuffled off this mortal coil' but had, in my humble opinion, a very pure voice.

And here's another clip just to prove the point. I am often asked what it is that I like so much about her songs, given that my grasp of the languages they are sung in is rudimentary at best.

I have always appreciated talent and this lady was clearly very gifted.

The Girl With Sad Eyes

The small girl with sad eyes
watching the fleet winged clouds
pink bag and mangy teddy
tucked behind

Empty thoughts on a vacant lot
and a frayed umbrella
propping up
her confidence

Thursday, 10 May 2007

What's That You Say, I've Got Beans In My Ears

Most of the times I see people talking to themselves in total oblivion to passers-by, I veer to the other side of the pavement, giving them a wide birth.

This is no doubt a learned response from childhood, where I often encountered a man suffering from such delusions on way to school. Mental illness can be a most debilitating thing and as a small child the strangeness of the situation encouraged such a response.

I was therefore with some consternation that I noted when I first arrived that a large proportion of the Singaporean population seemed to be suffering in a similar manner. As the streets here are somewhat more crowded than those in rural Taranaki there was no escape from being acosted by such unfortunates.

A closer examination however reveals that it is technology that is driving this self obsession, not illness.

Singaporeans of many generations have cables and plugs sprouting from just about every orifice. This is very much the 'wired generation' and they manage to maintain simultaneous conversations with multiple parties, with apparent ease. Most have an iPOD or similar, a mobile phone, a PDA or a combination device containing all of the aforementioned.

Invariably they enjoy a cocooned life safe behind their headsets which, while not being completely anti-social, makes discourse with other parties difficult.

The other observation I have made is just how prevalent instant messenger (web based) communications are, especially amongst the young. Virtual networking is the social norm and the use of wireless, laptops, cameras and messenger software appeals to this generation because its immediacy.

And what of "Beans In My Ears"?

Well there are a few of us around who recall a group in the '60's called the Serendipity Singers who recorded a song with this title. The lyrics while humourous make the point that we seldom listen to others. An earpiece in place makes such endeavours doubly difficult.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

What A Difference A Chef Makes

One of my favourite eating places in Singapore is Zi Yean Restaurant in Redhill. It has both and indoor (air-conditioned) and outdoor eating spaces and provides a very good Yum Cha lunch at reasonable prices. They have an excellent reputation built up over many years.

It was therefore with great interest that we learnt that Zi Yean were opening a restaurant in the Hotel Grand Central behind Le Meridien, off Orchard Road. Full page advertising in the Straits Times announced that there would be a 50% reduction in prices for High Tea (after 2:30pm.

So today being a Sunday we dutifully took the 111 bus into town and paid them a visit for lunch.

The experience was salutory. After an auspicious and hi-tech beginning, where our Dim Sum order was entered into a hand held PDA and "wirelessed" to the kitchen, matters deteriorated. I hope in the future they revert to writing the orders down on paper, as they still do at their Redhill operation.

Half of our order arrived in reasonable time. The rest dribbled out of the kitchen over an hour as we sat expectantly. Orders were misplaced and re-ordered. A neighbouring table had ordered the "special hotpot" (picture) and we watched bemused as the head waiter scalded himself with the broth. Staff attempted to move the dish from the at-table flaming gas ring to the table, with a pair of spoons rather than using heat resistant tongs or gloves.

Our Cheong Fun was anything but 'fun'. The dish had been forgotten about in the kitchen over steamed to a point that the wrapper resembled a mushy porridge.

At the conclusion of the meal one of the staff politely asked us what we thought of the food and we felt obliged to tell her. In justification she responded that it was a "different chef" to that in Redhill. That was no doubt the case and proves just how important it is in the food business to employ the right staff. This chef's control of his kitchen was shambolic and food quality control as it was plated clearly did not exist.

A great pity really as bad news travels quicker than good. I suspect they will have lost a lot of future business based on the experience that we and our fellow diners had.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Moth Moments and Patriotic Fervour

I am on Saturday duty in the Library. This usual happens once a month with our current staff roster and means that I man the reception desk as 'sole operator' between midday and 7 pm.

Student numbers using the library are picking up as assignments fall due so, unlike my last duty when there were no takers, today has seen a few hardy souls brave the heat to visit us.

Our main doors have a sensor which allows them to open electronically. They did so shortly after noon and apparently of their own volition. I wondered why this should be so, until I spotted that a very large moth had triggered the sensor and flown in to take advantage of our air conditioning (see the Gallery image right).

In a previous posting I enthused over the use of YouTube video in blogs. The video clip below captures not only scenes of Singapore but also the patriotic fervour that grips the island from time to time.

It would be fair to say that apart from an All Blacks win at rugby and the occasional success in international yachting, my country of birth rarely demonstrates such affection. Maybe we are not overly demonstrative, falling back on that well proven Anglo Saxon reserve. Singaporeans by comparison have no such reserve and the Government here openly encourages patriotic gestures.

In New Zealand, the National Day is a time to throw mud at the country's leadership (both literally and figuratively), fill the newspapers with politically inspired belly aching and generally contribute to the overall sense of national malaise.

Singapore's National Day is in stark contrast to the NZ variety with massed performances, speeches from leading dignitaries and a celebration of prosperous times ahead - the sense of optimism is tangible.

Here is the video in question. Not surprisingly there are also several "food sequences" which is a reflection on the Singaporean obsession with this topic. Just click on the small arrow bottom left to view it.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Video Of The Day

Many people post on YouTube and I thought I'd see how well their efforts integrate with this site?

As I often travel on the MRT (subway in this clip) it is interesting to see how Discovery Channel covered it. Click on the small arrow bottom left to get the video underway.

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.