Saturday, 14 February 2009

Jackie's Gift & Purple Haze

When Jimmy Hendrix wrote Purple Haze I am sure he had Singapore in mind. We have been mercifully free from this form of pollution in recent months, but over the past two weeks the smudged ring around the sun has signalled the return of the haze.

I have written about this problem before so will not burden the reader with another rendition. Suffice to say, the Indonesians take the money and run. They gladly accept foreign aid to tackle the problem of their farmers and plantation companies having massive burn-offs of vegetation but very little progress is made in actually combating this problem.

Jackie Chan is well known to movie fans around the world for his action films. He is a man with an interesting life story and I remember reading his biography when I first came to Singapore. While not a native of this country he has a huge following here, as well as in Hong Kong and China. Jackie in turn really enjoys Singapore and has significant property investments here. This week has made the country a very generous donation of heritage houses which he has stored in a Hong Kong warehouse and they are purportedly worth more than $S100 million.

The gift hasn't gone down well with the Hong Kong'ers (or "honkies" as they often referred to in Singapore) who perceive Singapore as having taken what should be rightfully their's to display.

This is a wonderful gift to the new university that the government is planning to open here, ironically on the very site of the failed UNSW Asia campus in Changi. Coming as I did to Singapore in 2006 to work for this defunct operation (which turned out to be a great Australian con job), I am delighted to see that the new university will have Jackie's heritage gift at its cultural heart.

As for those too young to know Hendrix, here is a video of the guitar maestro in action. But why oh why did we wear those terrible military uniform cast-offs back then!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

An Ant-i-Climax

Alighting from the bus this morning at the bottom of Tanglin Road I stood inadvertently on a column of industrious ants.

I couldn't help that this action was a rather compressed metaphor for the futility of modern economics and impact of the world wide recession currently being felt by Singaporeans.

Singapore has been very diligent and prudent in its economic management in past decades, building up huge reserves in the process. Now through fault of their own, but largely as a result of greedy financiers and major countries living well beyond their means, this country finds itself facing very challenging times.

There is no doubt in mind that Singapore will weather the storm and given its continued investment in research and top talent will survive and thrive in the years ahead.

The government here is fast-tracking many public development schemes to keep the economy ticking over and there has been a significant increase in social welfare spending, although it is not directly termed as such and should not be confused with the Western model of the nanny welfare state.

The Thaipusam festival was celebrated this past weekend and to outsiders is best remembered for its devotee’s predilection for sticking sharp metal skewers through their skin and walking lengthy distances supporting highly colourful structures called Kavadis.

This Hindu religious festival reminds me of another revelation in the local media during the week. More and more Singaporeans are seeking solace in religion as the recession bites. Evidently the same trend has emerged in the USA where the occupancy of church pews has taken a sharp turn for the better.

This search for answers draws me back to my encounter with the ants. No matter how many are stood on, they collectively keep on going for the welfare of all. There's a lesson to be learnt there.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Making Compost And The Full Monty

The news from Singapore this week has been a mixed bag. The most scandalous headline has been the revelation that an expatriate male and his "Japanese looking" woman partner divested themselves of their clothes and walked unencumbered through the expat enclave of Holland Village.

Whatever drove them to think that their fellow diners would enjoy such 'entertainment' is beyond me. However the act clearly had its novelty value, as on the return journey (yes, not content with walking one way they then decided to retrace their steps) many of the local were ready with their cell phone and digital cameras to catch the action.

Quite apart from the fact that to doing the "Full Monty" in a public space in Singapore is regarded as lewd act and carries a court appearance with it, the couple in question clearly had not read the second article that caught my eye in this week's Straits Times - the increasingly prevalence of skin cancer.

New Zealanders and Australians do not need to be reminded of this deadly skin disease but many Singaporeans are blissfully unaware of the consequences even though more and more of them are falling victim to it.

While on the subject of victims, the Sunday paper today covered do-it-yourself tips to help locals weather the worst effects of the recession.

At first glance several of these DIY activities provide tremendous possibilities.

After I have finished making my own muesli bars I may wish to shave my head. To do this I need to but a set of hair clippers priced between $45 and $119 - which rather defeats the purpose really as I could buy a packet of muesli bars on special at NTUC for $4 and my hairdresser would gladly shave my head (what's left of it to shave) for $20.

Other practical advice included 'how to make a cake' and in the section below it, 'how to make compost', presumably using the cake in question after it fails to rise in the oven.

Jesting aside, it is revealing that such advice is needed as I learn to make a cake by age six and the compost heap at the bottom of my childhood garden was a source of mystery, earth worms and pungent odours.

I realise of course that many Singaporeans rarely cook and making their own cakes and muesli bars is something they would not have considered before these hard economic times set in.

As for the compost making, I just hope my condo neighbours haven't been reading the same article and are not out measuring our common access way for a plastic bin.

River Sculpture - Singapore

I always enjoy this sculptural piece because of its implied movement. As clever work and ideally suited for the location, reflecting life as it used to be on the Singapore River

Monday, 26 January 2009

Post scipt - New Years's Eve in Chinatown

Icecream seller - Chinatown

On the eve of Chinese New Year we paid a visit to Chinatown to see the pasar malam ( night market) and enjoy the festivities.

The place was packed, shoulder to shoulder and the bargains were few. In fact most of the prices for nuts and sweetmeats were dearer than the same varieties in the local supermarket.

Lots of Taiwanese-style sweets on sale, sacks of pumpkin seeds and stacks of 'cut-price' Chinese New Year goodies. All in all a sweaty feast of red and gold. More photos on this gallery.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Farewell Rattus Rattus

We are on the cusp of the Year of the Ox and are farewelling a hairy friend who has been the harbinger of bad business tidings in the latter part of the year.

Being New Years Eve, Chinatown in Singapore will be packed with people looking for last minute bargains. The smell of bak kwa (grilled pork meat) will be in the air and the streets should be packed. Accordingly to a colleague of mine, if I am prepared to wait until 1:30 am tomorrow morning as the hawkers are preparing to close down I will get even better deals. I don't think I shall be doing so.

Normally we leave Singapore at this time and go to a country that does not have Chinese New Year as a feature of its calendar year. I hasten to add that we do the same at Christmas time and for similar reasons - the ability to shop, eat and relax away from crowds of festive shoppers.

Like its western Yuletide equivalent, Chinese New Year is all about families - a time for reunions and celebrations. It is the one time of the year when for at least two days all of the Chinese shops and eateries take a well deserved break. Thankfully we do not starve as the Malay and Indian vendors seize the opportunity and do roaring business without the competition of the industrious Chinese.

It is also a time for children to learn about their customs and receive their hong bao (red packets) which contain money. A lot of the local banks and large businesses in Singapore give out packets of the hong bao envelopes emblazoned with the character of the celebratory year.

Another custom is to give out oranges at this time of year as a symbol of good fortune for the year ahead. I received mine at work and naturally was hesitant as to whether to showcase it on my desk until mould morphed it into something unimaginable, or to eat it? I chose the latter and have no doubt devoured my year's worth of luck in the space of a couple of mouthfuls.

Most of the fashion floors of Robinsons department store were a sea of red this past fortnight as this is an auspicious colour to wear for New Year. The same applied to other department stores while the supermarkets have all of the traditional goodies displayed - miniature prawn rolls, pineapple tarts, confectionery carp and the like.

The filling for the prawn rolls is called Hae Bee Hiam, a pungent concoction of dried prawns, shallots and chillies

The Strait Times ran a very good story yesterday about the celebration's cultural & dialect variations and various journalists have been recounting what the celebration means to them.

The government too is getting into the spirit and has spent $1.4 million on River Hong Bao decorations in the Marina Bay area. Seven thousand firecrackers will be let of every night for nine nights to increase the chances of returning prosperity.

This year we are staying put in Singapore as my employment sees me travelling through Asia on a regular basis. As I write, my camera battery is charging and for the first time since we arrived almost three years ago we shall brave the crowds of Chinatown this evening and immerse ourselves in the festivities.