Monday, 28 December 2009

Today's Montage

Raffles Before Durian

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Gambier

Outside the new Ion mall stands the sculpture of a large nutmeg.

As I have mentioned in an earlier article, this is a reflection of the earlier days of Singapore when there were an abundance of plantations and estates producing nutmeg, pepper and gambier.
Uncaria Gambir

Today I read a little on the history of nearby Bukit Merah and one of the illustrations showed a crude map of the crops grown in the 19th century and their general location.

Again there was a reference to 'gambier' and I was none the wiser. There was another picture of brownish slabs of gambier extract in a factory but with no additional information.

With a little more digging, if you will excuse the pun, I managed finally discovered what this plant is and why it was so important in the early days of Singapore.

Gambier was vital to the tanning industry in 19th century Europe. In 1896 some 49,000 tons were imported by European tanners and chemicals companies.

No pair of kid gloves could do without it!

In neighbouring Indonesia they have another use for the plant; they chew it with areca and betel. In fact, when the British arrived in Singapore there were already some twenty gambier plantations owned by Chinese or Malays in full production.

Friday, 25 December 2009

A Deluxe Room With A View

Golden Mile complex at dawn is a bustling place. It is from here that the majority of buses to Malaysia depart.

We began our third trip to the Genting Highlands from this location on December 20th and on this occasion we chose another coach line - Transtar. On past trips we had travelled with Formosa Travel which meant departing from less salubrious neighbourhoods about 6:30 am. This time there was the promise of a better bus and greater comfort.

Golden Mile at dawn


The coach turned out to be adequate with wider aircraft-styled passenger seats and air conditioning nozzles that were the worse for wear. This meant that it was impossible to switch off the icy blast for the entire journey and resulted in most of us having a case of the 'sniffles' by journey's end.

The style of the seat reminded me that these coach services are facing serious competition from the budget airlines; it is now possible to fly to Kuala Lumpur for about the same price as it is to take the bus. Flying takes an hour and the trip to Genting by bus, six and a half hours.

Even though this was a different coach line it stopped at the same diabolical refreshment centre as Formosa's buses did. The food was just as inedible as on previous occasions and the toilets no cleaner.

The journey was uneventful and we arrived at our destination at the allotted time - 3 pm.

I should point out that this time we had planned to stay at the four star Resort Hotel rather than the 3 star First World. Regrettably most of Singapore had the same idea and all rooms were taken as we had to settled for the First World once again. This time though we were promised as Deluxe Room with a View as opposed to the deluxe room we had on our last stay, which had a view of a brick wall a few metres away.

It is that point that the holiday experience takes a sharp turn for the worse.

Our original idea for a short break was to go to the Cameron Highlands but the thought of a nine hours bus journey put us off. The irony was that having spent more than six hours on a coach to Genting we had to wait in a crowded group tour room for a further three hours while staff processed our reservations and handed out room keys. It would have been as quick to go to the Cameron Highlands.

We had requested a non smoking room on a non smoking floor when our booking was accepted. When we finally got to the reception counter however there were no Deluxe Rooms with View on non smoking floors left in the more modern Tower Two. We therefore had to accept Tower One, which is in need of major renovation. There were holes where fittings had been and some deluded former occupier had even attempted to prize the perfectly hideous art print out of its frame. Unfortunately they had not succeeded.

The same old problems of people smoking on these non smoking floors re emerged and the staff chose simply to ignore it. Hotel security spent most of their time slouched over the morning newspaper or conversing on their personal mobiles.

Our room was indeed a room with a view and the view was.... cloud. To be more precise cloud with rain, which is not so surprising given the altitude.

On the third day there was a glimpse of the theme park below but it wasn't until the morning that we left that the sun broke through.



Click on the book for the larger images

The inclement weather meant that the hordes of children on their summer holiday were unable to spend much of it outside and had to be content with the video and games arcades within the complex.

The rain also meant leaks and buckets in the 24th floor lobby. As we were on the highest floor I can only presume that the roof immediately above was less than weather proof.

One final observation about our Genting experience and the First World hotel; at meals we had a choice watching China tour parties spitting their bones and lemon pips directly on to the table, or fighting off the Indian tour parties who attempted to commandeer our chairs at every opportunity.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Journey Down Orchard Road

I took a short 'photographic' trip down Orchard Road yesterday morning. The above are some of the images. Click on the book to enlarge.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Decrepit Piles and Virgin Soldiers

This morning we awoke to heavy rain; a welcome respite from the irritating and oppressive heat of yesterday which had signalled its coming.

It is day two of a short Xmas holiday break and I have been catching up on some local history in the Queenstown library.

There is very little that is memorable about local Singaporean television. One significant, and possibly the only exception, was a series called Site and Sound, written and narrated by Singaporean Dr Julian Davison. The series traced the history of early Singapore through its architecture - the small bits that remain that is, for this is a country of constant urban renewal.

In the library I discovered two sender volumes by Julian Davison; One for the Road and its sequel An Eastern Port. Being contrary, I chose the latter and thoroughly recommend it.

Dr Julian Davison is the son of an architect and grew up in Singapore and Malaysia. At the age of nine he was sent to school in England, though his family home continued to be in Kuala Lumpur until his father retired in 1979. He completed a doctorate in 1988 based on a study of the headhunting rituals and associated oral literature of the Iban of Sarawak.

It is a book punctuated with anecdotes including snippets about the writer and former seafarer, Joseph Conrad's association with Singapore through his maritime adventures.

The chapter about the former Mitre Hotel and its seediness (it was a decrepit pile by the time we arrived in Singapore in 2006) in its later years is amusing, as is the revelation later in the book that a copy of The Virgin Soldiers by Leslie Thomas is hidden in the archive of the National Library but not made available to the general public.

Thomas's book describes the bawdiness of army life in Singapore at the time of the Malayan Emergency. The communist insurgency in Malaya was anything but funny and posed a serious threat to regional stability, although it did ultimately pave the way for the eventual withdrawal of the British from this part of the world and the independence of Malaysia and Singapore.

Many of the old British army bungalows are still in use and rented out to British and other expatriates who are undertaking 'tours of duty' in the Republic. They are airy buildings with echoes of a lifestyle that is long gone. One can almost imagine the punkah wallah sitting on the outside verandah.

No need for a punkah today; the weather is several degrees cooler with the rains.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Bright Shiny And New

Newer is not always better and so it has proved with the refurbishment of the food court in the Singapore Botanic gardens.

It was a place I frequented regularly as the variety of food was good and there were some hawkers who cooked in the old (for that read non-sanitised) style, where one could still savour the richness of a sauce from a well fired wok.

My favourites were sotong pagang (grilled squid, Indonesian style) and the banana leaf curry set which could be had for the princely sum of $5.50.

The fruit juice stall did a roaring trade even though they had a penchant for topping up the glass with sugar syrup.

A couple of days ago the food court reopened and so some of us dutifully returned to this once favourite haunt.

Gone were the plastic chairs and tables and in their place stood rows of environmentally friendly wooden tables; quite in keeping with the mission of a botanic garden.

The food service however seemed to have been inspired by IKEA, with stacks of trays and chrome rails to slide them along. The prices were also a dollar dearer. I can't put my finger on it, but the old food court magic was no longer there.

I guess tourists who eat there would not know the difference but we did. Speaking personally I enjoy the atmosphere of the old coffee shops and food courts, provided they are properly cleaned.

I noted that this is blog posting number 94 for 2009 which equals my best and most verbose year - 2007. In one more day I take an annual holiday and like many people in Singapore I will not be traveling far. Maybe I will try and discover some of the older places to eat during the break?

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Sunday Best and Somerset Simplicity

Our sunday meal is usually taken in the AnchorPoint shopping mall's food court. We have two favourite stalls; the Village Smoked Chicken stall (which I have mentioned before) and a pasta outlet which is featured above.

For a modest $S6.50 a largish portion of pasta and chicken cutlet can be procured. What makes it memorable is the tomato sauce which is clearly not out of a bottle.

On the subject of malls, today we visited the latest to be launched in Orchard Road - 311 @Somerset. Not that Singapore really needs another mall!

This one however has risen from the ashes of the Phoenix Hotel which used to occupy the site between Somerset and Orchard Roads. Its design is more akin to that of Centrepoint across the road and I much prefer it to its recently opened neighbour, Orchard Central.

Some folks of a certain age will remember a song by Leo Sayer called "Orchard Road". While older Singaporeans might wish to claim ownership of the locality, it was actually written by Sayer for his estranged wife, pleading for her return from her flat and forgiveness after a lapse of judgement in their 7-year marital life. She had moved out to a flat in Orchard Road in London.

One can't help but wonder what Tiger Wood's composition will be like given the litany of indiscretions that are unfolding in media this past week? A Putter In My Pocket perhaps?

A Fashionable Orchard Christmas

All decked out for Xmas - Orchard Road
Some interesting facts about the name 'Orchard Road'. It was named after the orchard of one of the earliest planation owners who lived in Singapore in the 19th century - William Scott.

Scott's Road is also named after Scott. His luxurious residence, which was called 'Hurricane House, was subsequently bought by His Majesty Somdetch Phra Paramindr Maha Chulalongkorn, the supreme King of Siam who visited Singapore often in the late 1890's.

It is now the Thai Embassy on Orchard Road and the royal connection and reverance for the monarchy is why the Thais will never sell it to the Singapore government nor any other party.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Early Singapore - Before Raffles

There is a common misconception that Singapore only came into existence with the arrival of Raffles and the establishment of the then British colony.

According to a Wikipedia entry, the first written records of Singapore date to the 2nd century, when the island was identified as a trading post in several cartographic references.

I have been reading an excellent history "Early Singapore, 13002-1819" which is edited by John N. Miksic and Cheryl-Ann Low Mei Gek. One of the contributors is an old friend and colleague, Kwa Chong Guan who I first came to know during our Museum days.

Evidence complied in the volume clearly demonstrates that Singapore has had a long existence as a trading settlement and the Fort Canning excavations also discovered the remnants of royal occupation.

What is most fascinating is the ebb and flow of local regional politics over the centuries - the Javanese, rulers from Aceh and the Portuguese to name but a few. Alliances were made and broken as power shifted from one group to another.

This Singapore History Museum 2004 publication is well worth as read for those who are interesting in discovering the true founding of Singapore.

They say that history is often written by the victors. I find this book a refreshing and informative historical journal which proves beyond doubt of the importance of Singapore before the British.