Sunday, 5 August 2007

See Perth And Die

There is a much hackneyed phrase that refers to seeing a place before one dies.

Unfortunately in the case of Perth it had died before I got there. I have just returned from what can be termed a bleak experience in all senses of the word. Heading to Western Australia in winter was probably not a good idea in the first place. But the holiday package was reasonable and so we went.

My wife had visited Perth thirty years ago and dryly recorded that little had changed in the intervening time.

Not that it didn't start promisingly enough. We made the main supermarket in the city our first port of call on the evening of our arrival. It was packed with people, all jostling their way to the check out. We soon found out why - the supermarket in question closed at 5:30 in the evening. Having been spoilt with Singaporean shopping times and options it was quite flashback in terms of customer focus.

The weather throughout our stay was drizzly and cold which did not improve my mood.

On the second day of our holiday we joined Out and About Tours for a tour of the Swan Valley wine trail. This was enjoyable and a few good vintages were sampled. With the new anti-terrorist regulations in place it is no longer possible to carry wine into aircraft cabins as we once did. This meant that we bought just two bottles and took the risk of breakage by packing them into our suitcases.

The Bursewood casino had just three varieties of pokie machines, in several graphic manifestations. According to one of our fellow wine trail participants it should be bulldozed and a new one built. Having visited the resort I can but agree and maybe Mr Packer Junior will do just that when he completes his Macau fantasy.

Winter Winetrail Photo - Roger Smith


I have made my first and last visit to Perth and can state that I much prefer the eastern seaboard of Australia, especially the tropical climes.

A brief shopping trip in Johor Bahru, Malaysia this weekend seems the perfect antidote to what we have just experienced this past week.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Flying South for The Winter

In two days time we are heading south to Perth. I am currently a 'gentleman of leisure' as I take a couple of weeks off before starting my new job at the National University of Singapore, mid-August.

Heading back into a winter climate was not our first choice. After all, one of the reasons for coming to Singapore was to escape the winter chills.

Our selection options were a bit limited at this time of year and somewhat like Goldilocks's predilection for porridge: Taipei was too hot at this time of year, a cruise out of Shanghai too expensive and Perth was just about right for our budget.

It's a short five hour flight and within the same time zone so the travel should not be too onerous. I have never lost the joy of flying and being a people-watcher at heart, don't even mind the bustle of airports. Changi remains one of the best airports in the world so we are spoilt.

Another plus about owning a condominium is that you can simply close your door and leave - no one knows if you are in or not. Not like house ownership in New Zealand where you worry about the garden, cancelling the newspaper, informing the neighbours...the list goes on.

I trust we will not be too jaded by our travels south as we intend spending the day after our arrival on the Margaret River wine trail. I've not been to Perth before so am looking forward to exploring the city and environs.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The Swinging Sixties

A good friend of mine, a former museum marketer, lives in Liverpool. Although retired she still keeps her hand in by taking on projects, one of which is The Beatles Story.

I am reminded just what an influence the group had on my adolescence and subsequently on my broader interest in music.

Like many youngsters I was brought up on the knuckle-rapping schedule of convent piano lessons (even though I was not of the Catholic faith). The Nuns were strict, some more so than others. There were competitions to demonstrate one's skill and each year, examinations to prepare for. If I recall correctly I rose to the lofty heights of Grade 5, theory and practical, but I was never going to be a concert pianist.

The value of a musical education is that it grounds one in musical theory and provides an ability to read music.

Come the Sixties and the advent of bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Merseybeats, Searchers ...the list is endless, my musical tastes broadened considerably. The teens are naturally rebellious years and the music of the time matched those inclinations.

When I got to boarding school I teamed up with a fellow boarder whose father owned a wood working business and therefore had some affinity with the manual arts. I by comparison, clearly did not.

My previous attempts at producing kidney shaped coffee tables in the high school woodworking class drove my tutor to distraction. One of the three legs was always shorter than the rest and discretely cutting it down to size seemed to extentuate the problem.

Motivation is a great thing and having heard the Merseybeat for the first time I determined that I wanted to build and play bass guitar.

The body of said instrument was cut out on the maintenance man's bandsaw. The guitar neck was a piece of straight grained oregon hewn from an old rugby goal post. Most guitar necks have steel reinforcing rod down their centre. Mine did not. This was to cause problems later as the neck had a habit of bending alarmingly once the four guitar strings were tightened (a good friend of mine from those days, Max Hayton, is pictured posing with the instrument in question).

Quite by chance I discovered I was a good drummer. Using knives at the school dinner table enabled me to learn the rhythmic rudiments and the school music master Trevor Nalder noted that I had some talent in that direction. I was invited to audition for the role of drummer in the newly formed school dance band - the rest is history as they say.

The photograph of my first group clearly demonstrates the influence of The Beatles, right down to the haircut. One could buy a plastic Beatle wig if truly desperate but fortunately I blessed with hair that naturally resembled Ringo's and I had the nose to suit.

Last year I finally got to hear one the Sixties groups I had idolised, The Searchers, perform live.
The music was just as good as it ever was. A toe-tapping beat and simple lyrics that epitomised that carefree decade.

..... and was it really 40 years ago today that we first listened to Sgt Pepper?

Today's Print

Evening Storm - Singapore

Monday, 23 July 2007

Join The Queue

If you want to find the best food in a food court look for the longest queue. Singaporeans are very discerning when it comes to such matters and joining the back of a long queue is seldom a wrong move.

Mind you, there are some aberrations - the extraordinary lemming-like activity at the Doughnut Factory in Raffles City being one. Apparently the owner had originally wanted to buy the franchise of a well known brand, couldn't afford to, so developed his own.

The secret to his success? Innovation. Local flavours such as Durian, Chocolate and Durian or (presumably for the most jaded taste buds) Durian, Milo and Mango.

Our queue experience today was at the Redhill Food Centre which is adjacent to the market. We were running late so didn't reach the Bak Kee Teochew Satay Bee Hoon stall until about 2 pm.


Satay Bee Hoon is a yummy dish and the father and sons who run this stall are Bee Hoon artistes. Unbeknown to us another blogger had nominated this food outlet as the best for this local delicacy. I would happily second his opinion.

Satay Bee Hoon is a concoction of satay sauce poured over sliced cuttle fish, liver, chicken etc. on a bed of rice vermicelli. 'Bee Hoon' is the name for rice vermicelli.

I mention liver as it is something that seems to have disappeared off most western dinner plates in recent times. When I was a child my English-born mother would often make use of sweetbreads, stuffed sheep's hearts, tripe and liver - not forgetting kidneys on toast for breakfast. And quite delicious they were to.

Perhaps contemporary western cuisine panders too much to the squeamish? The Chinese have no such qualms and their food offerings are the better for it.

It could be also that having been born into a country where the sheep population was five times the human one, I was endeavouring to redress the balance but eating every part of the sheep possible!

Friday, 13 July 2007

Taking The Pisang

There are plantains aplenty in these tropical climes. It's not a question of 'going bananas' but rather deciding which of the many types one wishes to purchase.

My favourite are the Pisang Manis variety - a smaller variety with a compact texture and intense sweetness. They do not appear in any abundance in the local markets which seems to suggest there are few commercial plantations, unlike some other varieties such as Pisang Raja.

All of which leads me rather nicely one of my favourite deserts, goreng pisang, which is a calorie-laden fried banana and a local delicacy.

The Malays have a penchant to create kerepek (chips) out of a variety of edible items and kerepek pisang is another use for the humble banana.

'Banana Republic' is a more derogatory term usually reserved unstable regimes in various parts of the Pacific and Africa. To this group I would add the entity known as UNSW Asia. Fortunately I only have another week in the employ of this now defunct university and I shall be pleased to terminate any association with the Sydney-based UNSW.

I count myself doubly blessed to have secured a more senior role at Singapore's most prestigious university - the National University of Singapore, or NUS for short - and to be able to remain in Singapore for a few more years at least, all going well. Many of my former UNSW Asia colleagues have not been so lucky and local Singaporeans caught up in this mess have probably suffered most.

You Sweet Thing

Signage on Singapore public transport and in public places is nothing new. This is a country where rules count and long may it remain so.

It is my observation that some of these laws are more relaxed than they once used to be. Littering is one such example. When I first visited Singapore in the early '80's the thoughtless discarding of a chocolate wrapper or cigarette butt on the pavement brought a swift response, usually in the shape of an instant fine.

As I walk to and from my bus stop each morning, near one of the city's MRT stations, it is not uncommon to step through or around discarded rubbish and old newspaper on the loose. This is a great shame and I hope the authorities will crack down on littering as they once did. I suspect that the culprits are either new immigrants or a younger generation brought up with different standards in such matters.

There was some new signage on my bus this morning. Along side the usual pictograms which spell out "No Smoking", "No Eating" and "No Durians" (which by the way I believe to be grammatically incorrect - the plural of 'durian' is 'durian') there was another that said quite emphatically "No Sugar".

No Sugar?!

What do they think we are going to do on the bus - set up a coffee outlet?

I can only surmise that there has been a recent spate of burst sugar packets carried on board the bus, by Aunties pushing their wire frame shopping trolleys.

Or maybe we are sweet enough the way we are.