Sunday, 9 March 2008

Red Scarves & Neighbourly Developments

Red Scarf - San Francisco Roger Smith

A download of this print is available for private use only. Click Here and follow the instructions. The image is a composite of winter activity in San Francisco.

Matters closer to home

Last evening we watched the outcome of the elections in neighbouring Malaysia and this morning's radio news confirmed a major upset for the ruling party. For the first time in more than 50 years the ruling coalition have lost their absolute, two-thirds majority.

The reason there is such extensive coverage and analysis in Singaporean media is the impact this dominant player has upon the day-to-day lives of Singaporeans. From labour to basic commodities like food and water, much is transhipped from Malaysia.

A stable Malaysia makes Singaporeans sleep a little easier at night and of course the economic inter reliance has a major impact upon both countries. The economic development zones of the former Malaysion government may now not happen, as the government's smaller majority will not allow them to push through their legislation unimpeded.

With the loss of the outright majority of the Barisan Nasional party it will be interesting to observe what this does for foreign investment in Malaysia and for social order. In 1969 following the polls there were riots and a state of emergency declared. One hopes this will not happen this time around.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Poetry 'n Motion

I went Ten Pin bowling at a recent staff outing at the Singapore Recreation Club. As readers will note from the poise demonstrated in the photograph, this was definitely my first attempt at the sport.

In the past I have turned my hand to the more gentile Gallic version of "Boules" (or "Petanque" if you prefer). I bought a set of boules back from New Caledonia in the early 1980's and used to play in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens during lunch break, with colleagues from the then Robert McDougall Art Gallery.

A pre-requisite of boules is a glass or two of red wine and a baguette loaf of bread.
No such cultural enhancements with the US version of bowling. All that is required for bowling is a nifty pair of bowling shoes which one can hire and the ability to heft a large composite plastic ball.

I was not alone in discovering that the selection of too small a bowling ball can mean that one's thumb remains semi-permanently jammed in the finger hole.

Despite all such tricks for beginners I have to say that the outing was a lot of fun. I even managed a respectable score in the second game having 'got my eye in'. Even more pleasing was that the following day I suffered no aches or pains from muscles not used to such exertion.

It was somewhat gratifying to learn that a number of my much younger Singapore colleagues were still suffering from sore limbs three days later!

Saturday, 1 March 2008

You Can Run But You Can't 'Ide

Beware the Ides of March!

So said the soothsayer to Julius Caesar and by my reckoning the 'Ides' remain around the 15th of this month. Today being March 1st therefore promises a good 14 days of normality before the prophecy of doom is made manifest.

The omens are not good however as today's dusk curry (whose virtue I have extolled in the past)at the Asian Civilisation Museum's Indochine restaurant was one tough old bird! Quite disappointing having mingled with the MRT madding crowds as far as Raffles Place just to get to the table overlooking the Singapore River.

While mentioning Indochine, it must be recorded that the service (for that read interest in the customers)was not attentive. To cap the meal off and as we were exiting, I noticed one of the cooks sitting atop a stainless steel food preparation bench. This in full public view as the restaurant has an open kitchen. Just can't get good staff nowadays!

On the subject of "H'iding" there is severe embarrassment all around with the escape of the militant leader of the Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terror network, one Mas Selamat Kastari. (pictured)

Heads will surely roll (no pun intended) as the gentleman in question was a major threat and had evaded capture on these shores before, eventually being rounded up by Indonesian police and deported to Singapore several years ago.

To have a man with a pronounced limp, and who was meant to be in a high security environment, break out of a toilet and completely disappear is quite staggering (again no pun intended).

While Interpol have issues a world-wide security alert it would seem that he has successfully flown the coop, no doubt to reappear somewhere in Sumatra in the future.

Such security breaches are very rare in Singapore and the Republic prides itself on the security of its citizens. The confidence of these same citizens, if one believes the Straits Times Forum on this subject, has been severely dented and it doesn't help matters having outsiders making snide remarks about the escape.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Beefy Smells

Body odour is a personal thing.

I recall when I first married into an Asian family one of first things I learnt was that to many Asians, Europeans reek of beef. A simple factor being that meat forms a significant part of the western diet and this is not so in the largely rice diet of Eastern countries.

Dairy products are another point of differentiation . A visit to a New Zealand small cheese producer once elicited a bout of dry retching from one of my sisters-in-law.

It is therefore not surprising to learn through a recent British TV science programme that certain diets result in stronger body odours than others.

A scientific test proved that a curry diet was most prominent amongst the odours that lingered, through the pores of the skin.

Having sat on Singaporean public transport these past two years I can vouch that this is so!

There have been a number of complaints in the newspaper in recent times about the quality or lack of airconditioning on the MRT in peak hours. With the increase in taxi fares more and more people are resorting to public transport.

The government's response has been to increase the frequency of buses and trains which is good news for those of us who queue in the mornings.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Heroism & Hazy Recollections

My 'day job' is at the National University of Singapore, more specifically working in their Alumni Office.

All of us are looking forward to the May move into our new premises - a purpose built home for returning alumni.

Regrettably though, two days ago on the afternoon of February 22nd, a large 60 metre crane working on the site suffered what was apparently structural failure and crashed to the ground killing three workers. Media reports today have identified the crane driver, a Mr Mohamad Homsen Kassan, as a hero.

He apparently stayed in his cab after shouting a warning and attempted to steer the boom of his crane away from the nearby student bus stop and Business building. By remaining in his cabin he was crushed and was killed in the accident. A brave man!

Visitors and locals alike will be very aware of the hundreds of cranes dotting the Singaporean skyline at the moment as there are a plethora of major projects underway. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that from time to time a crane should malfunction. Apparently though, nobody in recent memory can recall such a catastrophic collapse of a large crane.

Today is Sunday and the haze from the burn-offs in Sumatra are back, although not yet at the lung-clutching levels of late 2006 which we experienced shortly after we arrived in Singapore. It remains to be seen if the prevalent monsoon winds will blow this debris away or towards the country. Either way, Indonesia has once again demonstrated a complete disregard for it its neighbours despite previous assurance that they would crack down on errant plantation owners and small holders.

When you burn off land that amounts to the size of 2,000 football fields no wonder there is a problem.

A San Francisco Slideshow

The images were taken by me in February 2008 and posted on one of my social network sites

Friday, 22 February 2008

On Your Marks!

Big news this past 24 hours in the local media.

Firstly, Singapore managed to secure the 2010 Youth Olympic Games. This is the first Olympic event to be staged in this country and the new NUS Village will be home to many of the athletes when they are here.

Secondly and perhaps of equal importance in many local minds, was the drawing of the $10 million Hongbao lottery.

According to today's papers there were ten winners. Needless to say our ticket numbers did not feature in the 'winners' circle' but no doubt the 10 new millionaires will be very happy.

And So To Vegas

This will be a brief follow up on our recent US odyssey as Las Vegas was a quick three night add on.

I had visited Vegas four years ago and this time instead of staying in Circus Circus we opted for Harrahs. The reason being that is was more centrally located on the Strip and (according to my wife) the slot payouts were better! Alas this proved not to be the case.

It reminds me that prior to our first trip, I did some research into slot machines to ascertain if there was such a thing as a "hot machine" just waiting to jettison its jackpot winnings into our containers.

There are those who believe that if you let others load their money into the machine it will be primed ready to pay out when you follow them. This is a fallacy as the random number generator within the machine keeps running regardless of whether someone is feeding in coins or not.

In other words each machine is pre-programmed to achieve a certain percentage pay out and it is pure luck if your pull of the handle results in a payout.

The rooms at Harrahs were good but the casino itself was so smoky as to be totally unpleasant. I guess the casino owners have worked out that compulsive personalities are likely to be both gamblers and smokers.

By comparisson, the new Wynn's casino and shopping arcade was very pleasant to visit and we had two wonderful buffet brunches there. As it has high ceilings and good air conditioning the smoking was a lot less obtrusive. There were many Asian features in the complex such as the waterfall featured in the image above.

One thing about this trip was that being winter, the oppressive desert heat that greeted us in July of 2004 was not in evidence.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

A San Francisco Chronicle

It's 4:30 a.m. in the morning as I start this piece and you may well ask, why such an early start?
The reason of course is that my body's time clock has failed to adjust back to Singapore time after 15 hours of flying time across the international date line.

This despite following my usual in-flight routine of ensuring at least five to six hours sleep. I learnt this trick from a frequent flyer to Europe. He always took a sleeping mask, earplugs, an inflatable neck pillow and a sleeping tablet - in that order.

While I am not a great fan of sleeping drugs, it does seem to work along with drinking lots of water and not devouring the entire content of the plastic food trays that come my way.

Why San Francisco? Well post-trip I am asking myself that very question especially as we had the choice of a leisurely cruise in the China Sea or another trip to the USA.

The reason was deceptively simple. Neither my wife had ever been to San Francisco and we are both of an age where we can remember the flower power generation and Scott McKenzie's catchy melody.

So this Chinese New Year we left Asia and headed to the States aboard United Airlines flights. A word about this airline. The 777 flight from Singapore to Narita (yes there was a short stop over) was pleasant and comfortable as the plane had plenty of leg room. The Boeing 747 flight from Narita to San Francisco and the return flight was nowhere near as pleasant as the seat configuration in 'cattle class' meant that we felt crammed in.

Being winter in the States we packed a lot of woollen garments that hadn't seen the light of day since our New Zealand life, two years ago. These proved a lifesaver although the purchase of two good winter coats was high on the list of our priorities.

When we arrived in San Francisco we booked into the Westin St Francis in Union Square. This has an ideal central city location and the building itself had survived the 1905 earthquake so it resonated with the charm of yesteryear.

The service was excellent but a word to the wise, do not open the mini-bar refrigerator and shift any of the contents. The system is built around computer sensors so each bottle move is recorded as a 'purchase' in the central system, even if you are only putting your own carton of milk into the fridge. Fortunately we had an understanding reservations clerk when it came to check out and the matter was speedily resolved.

Having checked in to our hotel we made a bee line to the Burlington Coat factory which is on 5th street and within easy walking distance of our hotel. There are some great bargains to be had here and we bought stylish, woollen, winter coats for around $US 140-160, a fraction of the price in the department stores of Singapore.

The abiding memory I have of San Francisco is not a pleasant one. The number of homeless begging on the streets was quite shocking to behold and many of them were suffering from mental illness (top image). One visit to the tourist trap of Fisherman's Wharf we were appalled to see a man putting his hand into the rubbish bin and stuffing food scraps into his mouth.

The Mayor doesn't seem to have this problem high on his agenda and during our stay, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on his hiring of highly paid staff at the expense of the city's social needs.

A note about Fisherman's Wharf. Take the cable car which is great fun even in winter. Buy a three day pass for $US18 which is value for money when one considers that a one way fare is $5. We went on the Powell Hyde line to the Wharf and returned on the Powell Mason Line.

Our arrival at the end of the Hyde line was fortuitously near the Ghirardelli chocolate factory so sampling was undertaken. We made most of our Ghirardelli purchases though at the local supermarket, Walgreens.

It was the Dungeness Crab season so Fisherman's Wharf was featuring this local delicacy. I have always found crab a bit bland in taste and the Dungeness variety was no different even when served with the local sourdough bread. Worth a taste but give me Singaporean Chilli Crab any day!

A word about the other much vaunted tourist trap that features in every Bay Guidebook - Chinatown. What a disappointment this place is. Tawdry trinket emporiums and tacky decorations featured largely and this at the height of the celebratory season, Chinese New Year. It maybe the "largest Chinatown outside Asia" but my strong advice is give the place a miss.

I readily admit that I could be biased in my judgement of the San Francisco version, as we have a bustling and true Chinatown here in Singapore. Truth was that both of us were expecting more of the place. My only abiding memory was a dispute between a local city ordinance officer of majestic proportions and a Chinese green grocer which took place in our earshot. It seems that she, the green grocer, had failed to remove her produce from the roadside despite repeated previous violations. The result, a fine of $700 which was surely not the luck she was hoping for at New Year.

Our visit coincided with the Super Tuesday primary elections so the media was full of Obama versus Clinton and forecasts of their future campaign results.

The best day of our San Francisco experience was the Saturday Farmers' Market at the Ferry building (image with hat). Succulent fresh dates, nuts, cheeses and other produce were to be had and at a reasonable price although the prefix 'organic' as usual meant a hike in prices.

On the subject of victuals. We breakfasted at Lori's Diner on Powell street most mornings. The cooked meal was ample in proportion and shared between us. The experience is one of dining in a 1950's time warp museum with suspended monoplanes, coke signs and Chevrolets sliced in half and wall mounted. Great fun and reasonably priced. Charlie the doorman (image left) was there to greet us each morning, even if his garb was a little grubby and in need of a clean.

So was after five days in San Francisco did I leave my heart there? Well frankly no.

I think one visit was enough in a lifetime to this city that spawned the flower power generation. It reminded me so much of Wellington, New Zealand (but with better weather!)

From San Francisco we went for a couple of days to Las Vegas and this will be the subject of my next entry. See other images