Saturday, 9 January 2010

Papua New Guinea Portfolio - 1979 to 1981

I decided to resurrect some of my earlier images from my days in Papua New Guinea. The above is the result.

To Be Frank

There are people one meets who have a profound effect on the personal journey of life. For me, such a man was the late Frank Davis who recognised in me, a modicum of talent in the visual arts and acted as my mentor during Teacher's College years.

My childhood was a lucky one in a middle class New Zealand family in a small North island country town, where the principal industry was a freezing works. My father had been captured on Crete during the War and spent several years in Germany as a POW.

He became a partner in the small legal practice and eventually owned
Smith and Brownlie as it was known during my formative years.

My mother who was English, married my father and came out to NZ after the war. Being an English Grammar school teacher by profession my formative years where spent reading the classics and Greek fables and I am sure that this sparked my love of reading, writing, music (the obligatory piano lessons!) and in those days, acting in school plays.

Mum was also very adept at sewing and crafts and would whip up a Punch glove puppet on her sewing machine; which gave me hours of fun in my improvised theatre made out of banana boxes.

My imagination developed as a result and this has stood me in good stead throughout my adult life. Photography was always something that fascinated me and I can recall discovering old folding Kodak cameras in my grandfather's utility shed at the bottom of their Christchurch garden. Dad took photos of seaside summer holidays and visits to grandparents and in his cycling adventures around New Zealand's South Island when he was a youth.

I was about nine or ten years old I got my first camera - a Box Brownie. I still had it until 2006 when we packed up an left for Singapore although it had not been used for decades. The first photograph I ever took was on a journey in our Morris Oxford from Taranaki to Wellington. It was of my father standing on a small bridge in an off-road nature reserve just north of Wanganui.

The visual arts did not figure large in the teaching I received and so my focus remained primarily on the written word. At high school I learnt to develop my own photographs; stripping films from their paper backing in total darkness and loading them into a light proof tank. The alchemy of a black and white image emerging in a print tray was and remains a fascination although digital photography allows so many more creative possibilities.

When I first go to Teachers College I majored in literature and music, wrote a lot of poetry and gazed in awe at work emerging from the art department which
was under the stewardship of Frank Davis and Ray Thorburn.

Frank had the build of an ex rugby representative (which he was) - a man's man with a prodigious painting talent. His Te Kooti (Te Kooti Rikirangi te Turuki) paintings (pictured left) and those of the New Zealand bush(New Zealand Landscape Transformed ) still linger in my memory.

At one stage I owned two of Frank's paintings - "The Changing Room" and "Te Kooti Inspires His Warriors" but sold both at auction in 1999.

Noting my enthusiasm Frank gave me the opportunity to prove that I was serious in my desire to change courses from music to the visual arts. During the summer break of 1967 I laboured to a produce a portfolio for consideration and subsequently found that I had some talent as a sculptor - my major. He was one of those rare teachers who could change a students life and he became both a mentor and a close friend over the years, as did his wife Waana.

The upshot was that after a couple of years of general primary teaching (1969 - 1972) I too followed in his footsteps by becoming an art teacher - firstly at Tararua College in Pahiatua. This first appointment was facilitated by Frank who had been art teacher at the same school at one stage of his career and convinced the then principal that I would be a worthy replacement.

From the Wairarapa I took a more senior role as head of the Art department at Rotorua Lakes High School and in 1979 left to run Papua New Guinea's only regional art school in Goroka, in the Eastern Highlands. But that is another story. (Picture: Me on a photographic assignment in Madang, 1981)

My last and most enduring memory of Frank was hosting him in Papua New Guinea. It was a chance to repay some of the kindness and encouragement he had shown me over the years and little was I to know in 1980 that this would be the last time we would share experiences.

Within a year he developed a brain tumour which eventually caused his death. His mobility skills suffered in the last stages of the disease and lost the use of his right hand. He wrote to me shortly before he died using his left hand - the thought of the scrawling letter and the effort that went into this final communication still brings tears to my eyes.

Our friendship clearly had meant as much to him as it did to me.

There is a footnote to this memory.

Two years ago I received a surprise email from a former student of mine from Rotorua days. She wrote to say that my classes had changed her life and as a result she went on to major in photography at a NZ tertiary institution and was a creative photographer in her own right. It was an unsolicited thank you note that moved me greatly.

I like to think that this simple email repays some of the time and interest that my own mentor invested in me. To be able to share, teach and influence a life in a positive way is something to be treasured.

Arohanui Frank.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Marketing Gone Bad

A much vaunted graffiti spraying (carried out by a masked man) of Singapore's postal boxes and organised by SingPost has backfired spectacularly!

Designed to 'engage with youth' the boxes in question drew horrified responses from a significant section of the population, who believed they were witnessing an act of gratuitous vandalism.

For many Singaporeans the term 'graffiti' bring back vivid memories of the delinquent, expatriate teenager Michael Fay; who went on a vandalistic binge defacing vehicles.

As Fay was a US citizen, the States objected to the mandatory punishment of caning metered out by the Singapore courts. My take was then and remains, that if you are a resident in a country you abide by its laws and if you do not, then you will be punished according to the laws of the land.

The SingPost boxes were a PR disaster for the company and are now being repainted as part of a more sedate art competition.
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Thursday, 31 December 2009

Welcoming 2010

Marina Bay Panorama - Roger Smith

This will be my final entry for 2009 and so I wish all readers a very Happy New Year.

One would hope that 2010 will prove to be considerably better than the current one. The litany of misfortune these past twelve months has been a salutory lesson in what can go wrong: a major recession, the H1N1 swine flu and the rapid fall from grace of Tiger Woods to mention but a few!

2010 will be our fourth year in Singapore and I shall be travelling extensively in East Asia as part of my work. Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and the Philippines will all be new countries to experience.

This evening we shall watch the fireworks from Marina Bay from the comfort of our condo window in Queenstown - that is, if another condo built this past year does not block our view?

Come February it will also become the Year of the Tiger but more of this in 2010.

The Old Ford Factory

Museum Montage - Roger Smith

I have been using these few days of annual holiday to sally forth each morning to a different museum.

There are several that I have yet to visit and some that I frequent on a regular basis. Falling into the former category is the Old Ford factory, the site where the British surrendered to the invading Japanese army in 1942.

The trip to the museum is a mini-adventure in its own right; the MRT to Jurong and a change to the Red line sees one arriving at Bukit Batok. The bus interchange is adjacent to the station and easy to find. The bus to board is the 173 which winds through Bukit Batok and passes the museum in Upper Bukit Timah Road.

The much vaunted impregnable fortress of Singapore capitulated relatively quickly and Lt-General Percival received the terms of surrender in the Ford Factory.

As it transpired later, the Japanese were in fact out manned two to one and had seriously considered withdrawing from Singapore but Percival did not know this and his counterpart, Lt Gen Yamashita, succeeded in bluffing Percival by intimating that he had the superior strategic position.

February 15, 1942. Battle of Singapore, British Surrender. Lt.-Gen. Yamashita (seated, centre) thumps the table with his fist to emphasize his terms -- unconditional surrender. Lt.-Gen. Percival sits between his officers, his clenched hand to his mouth. (Photo from Imperial War Museum)

What followed was 44 months of brutal repression at the hands of the Japanese and it is therefore not surprising that many older Singaporeans will neither forgive nor forget what they lived through.

Singapore was renamed Syonan-to by the Japanese and the Old Ford factory documents life during the Syonan years.

The WW2 People's War archive that the BBC produced contains many first hand accounts of the fall of Singapore and the Syonan years. Those who were prisoners of war had harrowing tales to tell but the local population also suffered terribly. See the Haxworth collection of POW sketches and online diary.

Memories at the Old Ford Factory chronicles these events and how people survived.

Despite the cruelty metered out by the occupiers some of the principal Japanese war criminals escaped punishment.

One Masano Tsuji, who orchestrated the 'cleansing' operations of the local population ( i.e. massacres by the truckload), evaded capture. Reportedly he alluded his would-be captors thanks to the assistance of a wealthy Thai Chinese wife and became a 'monk' in Thailand. He ended up back in Japan in 1948 under the protection of the US occupation forces. Even more bizarrely he then went on to author a book documenting his escape!

As a footnote, shortly after my arrival in Singapore the father of my best friend from High School wrote to me. He is a medical doctor who had trained with another NZ doctor, the latter ending up at Alexandra Hospital in Singapore when it was overrun by the Japanese.

The NZ doctor was murdered by the Japanese when they massacred patients and staff on February 14th, 1942. Hear audio recollections

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

2010 Art Calendar

To download a copy click here.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Today's Montage

Raffles Before Durian

Sunday, 27 December 2009


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.