Monday, 6 October 2008

Yehlui Bound and Good Luck Charms

There is much more to Taiwan than its capital city Taipei. For a start it has a centre spine of mountainous terrain and a coast line very reminiscent of New Zealand.

Interestingly the ancestors of New Zealand's Maori and all Polynesian peoples came from this island as both tribal custom, linguistics and genetics have recently proven.

Following the typhoon hiatus mentioned in my previous post we spent a day touring the northern part of Taiwan and one of the highlights was Yehliu, a headland of wind and wave-sculpted sandstone shapes.

Queens Head with Tour Group

Not that one could see many of rocks that well with the bus loads on Chinese tourist dogging our every step and a guardian with a piercing whistle doing his best to shoo them away from the more unstable structures (which they had a propensity to hug).

The Queens Head (pictured above) is the most famous of the rocks at Yehliu but there are others with more dramatic sculptural forms.

Taiwanese are known for their fish and fresh catch was abundant in the markets. Evidence of this fishing activity was everywhere, from the fleets of squid boats tied up at the jetties to the solitary individuals perched on rocks, rod in hand and braving the incoming swells.

Roger Smith 10/2008

From Yehliu we travelled along the coast and then inland, taking in the usual tourist traps laid out by our tour guide. A couple of these are worthy of mention.

The first was the Mau products shop. The Rukai (Mau) are one of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan and have a great marketing pitch. Their shop specialised in the rejuvenating powers of dried fawn foetuses (which they handed around for inspection) and royal jelly which apparently allowed the former first lady and fourth wife of Chiang Kai-shek, Soong May-ling , to live to well into her nineties.

Needless to say their was no 'essence of fawn' packed into our luggage for the return journey.

The final shopping stop was at a shop that sold jade charms to ward off anything from acid reflux to losses on the sharemarket; the latter being foremost in most people's thoughts at the time of our visit.

While I do not claim to be an expert on jade I do recognise crude carving of this precious mineral when I see it and many of the offerings on sale were just that. Only one couple in our small group were interested in a purchase.

Our tour guide we observed, was wearing one of the charms although he confessed later that he only had become a tour guide in later years after his business had been wiped out by an early typhoon. So much for good luck charms we thought to ourselves. It obviously had not done him much good.

Much to the amusement of my wife and one of the Cantonese in our group we noted that the address of the shop concerned was '158'. To the superstitious Cantonese the numbers '5' and '8' together mean "never prosper". There is a rather delicious irony on the fact that a Lucky Charms establishment should have the misfortune (in the eyes on some Chinese) of a street address such as this.

The final stop for the day was the Shilin Night Market, a 'pasar malam' to use the term better known to most Singaporeans. It is well known for its food and a favourite is the oyster omlette. We gave this a miss having eaten it before in Singapore and having noted how oily the local version was.

The market itself has the usual cheap knock-offs of clothing and accessories. The only thing that really caught my eye was a selection of loudly squawking rubber chickens although I couldn't figure out to how to get it back to Singapore without causing a considerable degree of panic in the Customs Hall!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Typhoon In Taipei

I had thought of calling this entry the Jangmi Jinx as this was the name of the typhoon that followed us to Taipei just a few short hours after we had arrived.

Mercifully our flight from Singapore was only four and a half hours and we beat the storm to the island. Later, as can be seen from this news video above, things got decidely worse.

We had chosen to go to Taiwan for a short break between jobs and because we had never been there. For me the attraction was to get to visit the National Place Museum and view the greatest Chinese treasure that had been whisked across the Strait ahead of the advancing communists.

It was an hour's trip by minibus from the airport to our hotel - the Fortune Hiayat (note this is not the Hyatt). The transport smelt of second hand cigarette smoke and this proved to be a recurring prospect throughout our holiday. I won't dwell on the merits of the hotel but readers can see my online review - “Give The Fortune Haiyatt A Miss!” which I have placed on TripAdvisor.

I am not sure what it is about Taipei? It is a city that looks tired and listless with large swarths of grimy buildings reminiscent of Singapore's Chinatown of thirty to forty years ago. There are some bright patches with new building work, especially in the area near Taipei City Hall.

The much vaunted Taipei 101 Mall is no better or worse than the Singaporean malls whereas the New York, New York complex across the road is far from inspiring.

On the plus side, the Taiwanese are very friendly people always willing to assist a visitor if they they are able to. The green spaces are numerous and the MRT is efficient, providing you are staying close by to a station, which we were not.

Scooters are a very popular mode of transport as can be seen in this photograph. Don't be surprised that when the pedestrian sign goes green and you start to cross the road, a scooter of two weave their way around you.

The road rules seem quite flexible in this regard.

Another interesting fact is that the populace take a Typhoon Holiday not only during the storm but also on the following day.

We discovered this when we took a taxi to the National Palace Museum the day after the typhoon had moved through the capital. The weather was overcast but quite pleasant. Upon arrival at the Museum we discovered a sign that told us the place was closed due to the typhoon! I have never heard of a major museum being closed in such circumstances and they would have lost a lot of business and goodwill as a result.

Towards the end of our stay we returned to the museum and the collection is simply stunning in its artistry and breadth. My favourite was a small jade that was crafted to emulate a cube of stewed pork although a Jadeite Cabbage with Insects is the most famous.

A small album of images

Fishmonger - Taipei

More images can be viewed by clicking here .

Friday, 26 September 2008

Raining On The Parade

As I write we are experiencing a tropical deluge with accompanying gunshots of thunder and lightening flashes.

Nothing too unusual about this given that we are in the Tropics and the rain comes as welcome relief after a week of high humidity and brain-numbing heat.

The big difference is that today is the first time the Formula One drivers get in their cars to try out Singapore's new road circuit ahead of Sunday's grand prix.

The F1 Night race is not resonating with most Singapore's despite the media's attempt to talk up the event. I have yet to find anyone who is going to see the race in person. Some politely say they think they might watch it on TV but I actually doubt that many will.

Most comment has been about the inconvenience to public transport and the lack of custom in the large shopping malls due to road closures.

Welcome to the world of street circuit racing! These events are by their very nature disruptive.

I recall promoters in Auckland, New Zealand desperately trying to convince the local City Council of the economic benefits to that city when in reality, it would have seen the main arterial route into the city from the North Shore completely cut. Fortunately the race did not go ahead.

Here in Singapore millions have been spent of lighting and other infrastructure for the world's first F1 night race. I hope they see a return on their reported $105 million investment. When public statements in the media a week before the event switch to talking about 'intangible benefits' then one gets the sense there is a growing realisation that the receipts are not going to match the outlay?

I am not against motor sport, far from it - I even belonged to a car club at one stage in my life. I have however worked in, and been associated with, international events so I recognise hype over substance when I see it.

F1 is no different in many respects from yachting's America's Cup. It is a rich man's sport projected to the masses. Along the way it sells motoring product, but to the rich list followers it is just another event on the annual social calendar. It also transpires of course that these super rich moguls rarely pay to attend the races as they are feted by corporations and the finance sector who cover all expenses to get them track side.

Commentators should therefore not be surprised that the people in the Heartland are tuning their TV's to watch English soccer in preference to motor racing. This event has little relevance to their daily lives and the cost of tickets mean that they are unlikely to attend in person.

Some will even be leaving Singapore to escape from the event if reports in the local papers can be believed.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Killem Tru

"Killem Pest, Simply the Best" proclaimed the T shirt. It was worn by a slight man on his way to work on the MRT.

The slogan reminded me of two things. Firstly the Papua New Guinea pidgin language that I was used to hearing in the Highland of that country where a similarly sounding word to "killem" is deployed, usually in the context of "kilim tru" i.e. make sure he, she or it is truly dead!

Not a very reassuring phrase if one is being chased by a kukakuka tribesman with the pig tusks through his nasal septum turned skywards.

The second thought that came to me is about the pests that one finds in the tropics - the cockroaches of various sizes and hues, ants of every scale and description and not forgetting the ever-present mosquitoes which carry a variety of nasty diseases.

Pest control is a growth business in Singapore and at certain times of the year 'fogging' is all the rage with large clouds of presumably noxious chemicals smoking out the hiding places of every creepy crawly.

I am not sure what the chemical make up of this 'fog' actually is, but what continues to surprise me is that very few of the operators wear protective masks as they apply the mixture.

Seeing the pest control man on the MRT yesterday was part of a final journey to Buena Vista MRT station and onwards on the 95 bus to my former place of work, the National University of Singapore. I will not miss this trip.

If I got to my Queenstown station by 7 am then the journey was reasonably comfortable. Afterwards the crowds packed the carriages especially in recent times where more and more people have been leaving their vehicles at home and turning to public transport. The wait for the 95 bus at the Buena Vista bus stop was the worst part of the journey - hot, sticky with little moving air, one often was left feeling in need of a second morning shower.

Now I am temporarily a man of leisure, with a couple of week's annual leave to use up before commencing my new job with the British Council, based in Singapore.

Quite apart from the new Director's post, I am looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with an old favourite - the 111 bus - which will transport me to the British Council in the Tanglin area.

But this is three weeks away and in the interim I have a holiday in Taipei to look forward to.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Mongols in the Fall

The carpet of yellow and red stretched for as far as the eye could see.

From 25,000 feet it was a scene I remember well - the Canadian Fall. "Fall" always seems such an appropriate and utilitarian term for the season of "autumn".

Apparently we have the French to blame for the term "autumn" as it comes from the Old French word autompne and was later normalized to the original Latin word autumnus. Before the 14th century however the season was known as "harvest" a solid, self-explanatory and sensible British term!

Why do I mention the above while being safely ensconced in tropical Singapore away from all of the vagaries of the aforementioned season?

The answer is very simple - we are currently celebrating the Mid-Autumn festival, an event which is actually the Moon festival and dates back some 3,000 years to the Chinese Shang Dynasty.

The mid-Autumn date is the time that the Moon is meant to be at its most beautiful and everyone admires it.

There are no falling leaves in Singapore in the autumnal sense, just expanding waistlines as everyone buys and samples Moon cakes. These 'weight-watcher delights' are given as networking and relationship building gifts not only to family and friends but also by corporates to valued clients.

Legend also has it that the Mongols where overthrown during this time by embedding messages related to the popular uprising inside Moon Cakes.

Now the only embedding that takes place is the insertion of new and exotic fillings within the crust. Each year there are more and more unusal fillings literally breaking the mold.

This year for instance I have sampled; champagne Moon Cakes, rum liqueur varieties, roast chicken/pepper & lotus, bilious green pandan versions, green tea and even durian moon cakes.

I remain however a traditionalist with a strong preference for lotus paste and double egg yolk, the latter being salted duck eggs which are a strong counterpoint to the cloying sweetness of the lotus paste.

One is of course meant to take a small slice of the cake and have it with tea. The novice Ang Mo may attempt to eat a whole cake at one sitting but I doubt that this attempt would ever be repeated - they are simply far too rich.

There are also quite distinct regional variations of this delicacy. I prefer the Cantonese style crust which is a red-brown and baked. Also popular in Singapore are the Teochew style which is a flaky pastry version that is deep fried.

I confess to being "moon-caked out"! Yesterday we visited Takashimaya department store and in the centre court there were dozens of stores featuring mid-Autumn goodies and there was much sampling to be had. After doing the rounds of the various stalls we both felt rather ill from too many sweet offerings.

As a footnote I should also record that after more eight years of working in the university world I am leaving to take up a new role as Director of Online Operations(East Asia), for a well known international organisation that has its regional hub based in Singapore.

This is a challenge that I am very much looking forward to and, as my work will involve travel to at least 12 countries in the region, I will be able to further expand the geographic coverage of this epistle.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Today's Print

" Hearts " .......... Roger Smith