Saturday, 21 March 2009

Manchu Munchies and Copper Calculators

It been what I might describe as a typical "Singapore Saturday" After some online work and house keeping we took the MRT to see one of the special exhibitions staged by the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Five stops from our station brought us to Raffles Place and then it was a pleasant stroll across the river to the Museum. The exhibition in question is entitled " The Kangxi Emperor - Treasures from the Forbidden City".

I have always enjoyed these mini-blockbusters that show off the culture and opulence of the Imperial Court.

The Emperor was no slug - a man of intellect, a warrior of some distinction and clearly a diplomat par excellence, at a time when the minority Manchu were greatly outnumbered by the ethnic Han Chinese. He ascended to the throne at the tender age of 14 and was the longest reigning of all the Emperors.

Interestingly, the influence of Western culture was encouraged under his reign. A twelve digit copper calculator from the imperial collections was modelled on the 15th century invention of a Frenchman, Pascal.

He had three wives who all predeceased him and according to the headcount, some 64 consorts in total (if one counts his concubines). He fathered 36 children. This number is probably higher as many of his offspring died early.

Despite all of this conjugal activity has still had time for the finer things of life and was the first Emperor to play a western instrument - the piano.

After viewing the exhibition we adjourned to the attached Indochine restaurant for a lunch of duck curry (my favourite at this eatery) and beef ragout.

To walk off the dietary effects of the lunch we strolled down the Esplanade Walk towards the "Durian" the Esplanade's theatre and convention centre. In so doing, we had to run a gauntlet of Falun Gong activists who were staging a mini-exhibit and protest against China, under the traffic overpass.

I found this rather surprising as the authorities don't take kindly to unauthorised activities of this kind.

Next we scaled the steps into the Marina Mall and walked across to SunTec, which last week was filled with IT bargain hunters.

This week it is the turn of the "foodies" as it is the Singapore Food fair that is drawing the crowds. One can nibble one's way around the exhibits, sampling many of the delicacies from this part of the world. Unfortunately being filled with curry and ragout I was not overly inclined to do so.

We did however buy something back for an evening snack. Here I must give an enthusiastic thumbs up for Pie-Kia's product. There small pies are only one dollar apiece and generous in their filling, with a good buttery crust to boot (not to be confuded with tasting like an old boot).

They are part of the Old Chang Kee Group which is renowned in Singapore for their curry puffs, fried sotong (squid) on a stick and similar delights. So far I have only tried Pie-Kia's savoury pies but given the chance I wouldn't mind nibbling on a jackfruit or mango version!

I have a feeling that such fare would not have been acceptable in Kangxi's court, even if he suffered an attack of the 'Manchu munchies' following strenuous evening exercise and was craving for western sustenance.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The IT Crush

"Colon Cleanse in Thailand. Cleanse your colon, lose weight, look beautiful"

So said the Google advert that popped up on my Facebook site this morning. Not that having an internal sluice holds any appeal at all, but I couldn't help musing on the clever intrusiveness of today's advertising.

I have a feeling that my advert profile in someone's marketing system is seriously awry and the reason I am getting this menu of medical misfortune is that I have a policy of lying about my age when subscribing online!

As befits my senectitude the online medicos are quite obviously rubbing their hands at the prospect of signing me up to pills, potions and procedures.

In the real world medical tourism is big business, especially in neighbouring Thailand and increasingly in Singapore although I suspect that the current economic slump is translating into less business for the companies who have invested in private hospitals.

There has been no such slump when it comes to the annual Singapore IT Show. On Friday the cash register rang to the tune of more than $21 million of sales. We went yesterday which being a Saturday meant that there were even more people and at times the sea of humanity came to a dead halt, unable to move in direction.

It got so congested that the PA announcements began extolling the virtues of delaying one's visit for a further hour - a bit late when wedged in the middle of several thousand people!

After being jostled for half an hour we made our way to the upper levels and I managed to purchase a 500 Gb portable hard drive for $S179, which was about $60 less than the normal retail price.

My mission is to progressively transform all my digital files currently housed on CD's and DVD's into this drive thereby reducing the volume of plastic CD holders that are cluttering up our drawers.

We hadn't actually gone to Suntec Mall with the idea of the IT show in mind. We were on a far more mundane mission to purchase several packets of their house brand #1 Muesli. The stocking of this product is piecemeal which means that when you find it on the shelves it is advisable to grab as many packets as possible.

I recall from my days in Papua New Guinea that we did a similar thing when a shipment of something arrived from the Antipodes. Occasionally the supermarket freezers in PNG would breakdown or there would be a two-day regional power cut which meant that the local supermarket was forced to de-stock their freezers and giveaway prices. There is of course only so much ice cream that one can eat at one sitting.

The situation is Singapore is of course nowhere near as primitive as Papua New Guinea was in the late '70's but there are other similarities. For example, it is rarely possible to consume the finest export produce in one's own country but come to Singapore and the meat, fish and variety of produce available is, in the main, of excellent quality.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

My Kingdom For A Thong

Mine is not a delicate foot. Nor it is in Ang Mo terms an overly large one.
I like to think of it as an appendage befitting my yeoman ancestry - sturdy and well proportioned.

This perception makes not a jot of difference when it comes to buying shoes in Singapore. My shoe size is 45 which translates to 10 1/2 in New Zealand terms.

Almost without exception every make and model of footwear in Robinsons and nearby stores stops at size 44. The salesgirls smile politely and suggest squeezing into their largest size, a scene reminiscent of one an Ugly Sister trying on the glass slipper in Cinderella.

Occasionally I do find something that fits and a nice pair of Florsheims are a recent purchase. My problem in recent times has been finding a pair of rubber jandals (or flip-flops or thongs depending on your country of origin).

My wife carried a paper cut out traced from the sole of my jandals in her handbag for several months, on the off chance that she might stumble across something suitable. Alas she did not and I have resorted in recent times to cloth slippers of the Japanese variety, purloined from various hotels I have stayed at.

Today however I was in luck which just shows that perseverance pays.

On one of the higher levels in Centrepoint mall I came across a temporary stall that was retailing warehouse overruns. Rising like a periscope out of a pile of odds and sods was a biliously coloured pair of what seemed to be rubber jandals.

A closer inspection revealed that this was so and I had hit the jackpot - two pairs of size 45's for a mere $5. Being the Hang Ten brand they are reasonably well constructed.

There is of course always a drawback with such bargains. The jandals are remnants of the last soccer world cup purchased by patriotic Spaniards (the red and yellow design) and Englishman (the embellished Union Jack design). There is further challenge with the British version as the flag in question is red, pink and blue - rather than the official red, white and blue.

One can only summise that the dye ran during manufacture which probably goes a long way to explaining why few of them sold. No self respecting British soccer fan would be seen dead in jandals of this hue.

Beggars cannot be choosers and at least I can now shuffle around our condo in my new footwear muttering "Ole!" or singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" -I am a rugby follower - depending on how the mood takes me.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Boozy Basoonists

"The charge M'Lud is that on August 31st, the accused was drunk in charge of his instrument"

An unlikely scenario? Perhaps not, according to the revelation this week that binge drinking amongst members of Britain's leading orchestras is a serious problem. Reportedly things have got so bad that there was "an incident in which a percussionist had fallen off the back of a high stage while drunk".

Now I know that in a recession the arts are almost amongst the first to suffer but up until now I thought it was only rock bands that took to the stage inebriated.

For some reason it appears that brass players drink more than other sections of the orchestra. Having tried to master the trombone as a teenager I can understand the frustrations endured by this section of the orchestra but it didn't turn me into a raging alcoholic.

There has no doubt been a corresponding rise in sales in strong mints wherever British orchestras are located. A bass player with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (a fitting title, in the context of this story) tells of a fellow musician who attempted to mask his habit with this confectionery and whose playing got "worse and worse".

To the best of my knowledge this affliction has yet to strike Singapore's classical music scene. I shall however be listening carefully for the sounds of Mozart on Speed.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Wonder of Wonders

It was 28 years ago that I last made a visit to Bangkok but here I was, cocooned inside an air-conditioned limousine, proceeding at pace down the freeway between the airport and the city centre.

In the early 80's this trip would have taken a good two hours, bumper to bumper, sweating and swearing at the never ending traffic jams. By comparison today's journey is a breeze, albeit a fairly sticky breeze, as the sun in Thailand is intense and manages to infiltrate into the passenger compartment despite the tinted glass.

A word about the new Suvarnabhumi aiport in Bangkok. According to one report, visitors still flock to marvel at its "airy and futuristic structure designed by German architect Helmut Jahn, featuring an oval-shaped concourse, energy-efficient temperature control systems, and several superlatives in airport construction".

Futuristic it may be but the hard Teutonic steel walkways reminds me of looking under the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle - very efficient without any endearing warmth at all.

Yes, there are now automated walkways which the old airport never had, but you need to move quickly as one feels like a hot house tomato and the cloth 'sails' that sheath sections of the roof do little to dissipate the noon day sun.

For my money Singapore's Changi airport still wins hands down. It seems more welcoming and less severe than the Thai pretender.

The final section into the city was chaotic as the main arterial routes converged and tuk tuks and scooters weaved their way and forth through the traffic.

My abiding memory from my first visit to Bangkok was the warmth and friendliness of the Thai people and they have retained this attribute. Their service ethic is faultless and they go out of their way to make the visitor welcome.

I stayed at the Pathumwan Princess Hotel at 444 Phayathai Road, Wangmai, Pathumwan. With number '444' I expect many Chinese think twice about staying as '4' is regarded as an unlucky number, but I had no such qualms. It proved to be an excellent place all round and I would strongly recommend it to any business or private traveller. The hotel is completely non smoking - thank goodness!

As ASEAN was meeting in Bangkok at the time of my visit security was tight with a gauntlet of metal detecting devices, people with mirrors on poles looking at the underneath of every car and frequent bag searches.

On the day of my departure I noticed the hotel security staff where keeping a close eye on a large group of young people crowding the entrance, all wearing mauve T shirts. Given that down the road red shirted, anti government protesters wear laying siege to Government House I mistook this group as a splinter group of the same movement.

Not so. It transpired that a South Korean girl pop group, the Wonder Girls (where do they get these titles?) where about to arrive at my hotel and this welcoming party was the Thailand fan club.

I was tempted to say them "I was a drummer in a rock band a decade or so ago would you like my autograph while you are waiting" although I very much doubt there would have been any takers. So rather than making any comment at all I dragged my small suitcase through the throng and departed, by the same limousine that had brought me to the hotel the day before.