Sunday, 31 December 2006

Aunty 8 And Uncle 9

Wisma Atria is a shopping centre with a much vaunted food court on its fourth level. It is one of the many modern versions of the old hawker centres, with a combination of the various ethnic food styles that make up the cuisine of Singapore.

The place is always very crowded with locals and tourists alike, all fighting for eating space. Would be patrons hover like the ever-present mosquitos, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting when the opportunity for a seat presents itself.

This is not a space of quiet repose. It is a full-on eating house in the very distinctive "gobble and go" Singaporean style. No sitting post-meal for quite reflection here.

What is very obvious in such places are the numbers of elderly Uncle and Aunty retainers who are employed to undertake menial tasks such as cleaning and waiting tables.

The honorific of 'uncle' or 'aunty' is given to people older than oneself and is both a mark of respect and a statement of place in society. In the western world such a term would mean a family asscociation but not in Singapore. An entry in the Singlish dictionary describes them thus: "A Singaporean aunty or uncle can be anyone who is from the older generations, like an English old age pensioner and the term is used out of affection and respect"

Not that many years ago the retirement age in this country for women was fifty five and for men sixty. With a poor Singaporean birth rate this level has been raised, but increasingly one can see elderly folks supplementing them income by working well into their seventies.

In our own apartment complex we have Ah Kao (Photo above) who is well into his seventies and resonsible for maintenance and grounds. He is both vigorous and agile and clearly has not been following my sedentary lifestyle!

It is rare to see younger Chinese taking on such roles and as the elderly finally retire, their places are being taken by other races. As there is no social security system as such, senior citizens are expected to have made provision for their own retirement and be supported by their families if need be.

Late morning we visited the Presidential seat - Istana. It was the Governor's residence when Singapore was under British rule, although I note that the statue of Queen Vic has been relegated from the State Room to a leafy section of the gardens since that time.

This is the final blog entry for 2006. When I look back it has been a momentous year; changing jobs and countries, selling all of our chattels and adjusting to life here.

Friday, 29 December 2006

Bloggus Interruptus

Three days ago there was a massive undersea earthquake near the southern tip of Taiwan. Sadly this was the very date that most people were remembering the tidal wave destruction of Boxing Day 2004.

Apart from a hurried Tsunami alert no one here thought too much about the wider consequences of this natural event.

What has transpired is a major disruption to commerce and communications in South East Asia, thanks largely to damage undersea cables and our increasing reliance on the Internet as the vehicle for most of these transactions.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost through the inability of regional share markets and banks to conduct their business and similarly large sums have been lost by budget airlines whose business is showing a decline of 20%.

Even far more modest communications such as this blog have suffered as the result of very slow web speeds.

All this goes to prove two things:
  • it is very unwise strategically to rely on one fibre optic cable route and
  • just how reliant we are in modern society on conducting our daily lives through the medium of the Net.

As the Melbourne Age reports this morning, this is "a sign of the vulnerability the world's telecommunications network, which was frenetically built out at the height of the internet boom but has since attracted little investment"

Monday, 25 December 2006

Xmas Plus Plus

Today is Christmas Day and late morning we embarked upon the time honoured ritual of locating a good Christmas lunch.

We do this because on the eve of our first Xmas together, some twenty years ago, it transpired that my wife had no plans to enjoy the traditional feast the next day and we ended up dining on sandwiches.

This was the first and last time that we did this. We have an unwritten agreement that this is the one day where we will have a slap-up buffet, even though neither of us actually follow the religious observances of the festival.

For the past decade in New Zealand we did our utmost to escape the deathly sloth of the season as most of the shops and services came to a grinding halt. We usually flew "Across the Ditch" (as the trans-Tasman flight is affectionately known) and alternated our destinations between Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and on one solitary occasion, Adelaide.

This being our first Xmas in Singapore we opted to explore the buffet options in the local hotels and happened upon a splendid spread at Le Meridien, reasonably priced at $35 plus, plus.

"Plus, Plus" is used to describe the two taxes that are added to your bill. The first being GST and the second, a tourism tax.

Today's menu included a combination of East and West with such delicacies as Goose with Chinese pears, turkey with all the trimmings and other 'weight watchers delights'. All beautifully prepared and we shall return next year for more of the same.

Post-lunch we went for a jaunt down Orchard Road as there was meant to be entertainment. Lots of Filipino maids enjoying their day off and not much else to see except a brace of "Chinese Josephs" and one oversized "Herod". I should add that to be photographed with one of the aforementioned 'Josephs' cost one a donation of $5 - for charity of course.

Other events of interest today: Arnold Schwarzenegger broke his leg and a childhood comic hero of mine, Charlie Drake, died.

Friday, 22 December 2006

Away With The Fairies & A Lot Of Old Blogs

The mainstream media are running scared. The proliferation of Blogs and the personalisation of communication is presenting some very real challenges to journalists.

To present the alternative view of blogging might I suggest The Blog Mob - Written by fools to be read by imbeciles presented by the authorative Wall Street Journal . Mr. Rago makes some good points and takes a swipe at the immediacy of blogging and responses to items by the readership.

To quote: "The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps".

Well Mr Rago hasn't put me off writing and I make no apologies for the lack of investigative journalism in this blog. A Blog to me is stream of consciousness albeit it a somewhat muddy stream at times!

Blogging is also about freedom to acquire and disseminate knowledge and opinion. I'm a Child of the Sixties and don't want my media "sliced & diced" by professional commentators all of the time. Like any good diet there should be balance.

The media figures and commentators I most admire - Clive James, Dave Barry (and those of similar ilk) - are first and foremost, fluent communicators. They are keen observers of the human condition and write with wit and wisdom.

Here in Singapore blogging has reached a frenzied crescendo. Everyone either has a blog or is regularly reading one. There is even Blog Tv on Channel News Asia, which to my eyes is one of the most banal television programmes I have ever encountered, but then again the show is not aimed at me. Programmes entitled "Does Your Momma Know You Blog?" are hardly in the same class as Clive Jame's Talking In The Library series.

This then is the beauty of Blogs and Blogging - it's a bit like the Woolworth's Pix & Mix chocolate counter, there's something for everyone.

Enough of esoteric!

Today being the Saturday before Xmas we are off to do what most Singaporeans do best - shop. (see picture below of the Xmas Shopping Melee) Not for Xmas presents in our case but for more mundane items for our new apartment.

Errata: I am eating humble pie and a bird pie at that. In a previous blog entry I identified a melodius bird as a Singapore Fairy Bluebird . A colleague has since lent me a CD of Singapore bird song and the bird is question is most definitely a Purple Throated Sunbird.

Once a remora always a remora - may the Blog be with you.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Under The Shade Of The Pong Pong Tree

There are two large trees beside our apartment block in Oxley Road which have smallish white flowers and large green fruit, not dissimilar in size and shape to a mango.

My interest in them is that once the fruit falls and rots away (which it does very quickly in the tropics) the fibrous pith has a most attractive texture.

When my university colleagues and I had lunch at the St Margaret's Drive Hawker Centre the other day I noticed two more of these trees which the local black crows were perching upon. They used this platform to eye the left-overs on the the dinner plates and made opportunist forays to retrieve the scraps.

I was told by my fellow diners that these trees are called 'Pong Pong'. (Maybe the fruits are too large and of the non -bouncing variety to be called 'Ping Pong'). It transpires that the seed of the Pon Pong is toxic and the fruit inedible. So toxic is it that it is used as the base ingredient of rat poison.

This news was received with more than a little concern, as two weeks previously I handled several of these fruit with my bare hands while setting them up on a nearby wall to photograph. Don't think I will be doing that again in a hurry!

Another fact about the Pong Pong tree is that until recently, no bird nor animal had been recorded actually eating any part of the tree. How sensible I hear you say.

More recently however it has been observed that an introduced parrot, the Tanimbar corella, munches away on the flesh with great gusto. It is either a very stupid bird and a dying species or it's digestive system has evolved to make it impervious to the toxic pulp. I suspect it is the latter as I haven't found any mounds of dead parrots recently.

The title of this posting suggests the need for shade. Usually this is a must for Singapore especially at midday, when it is my habit to wander down to the local Tai Hong Canteen on Alexandra Road for a bite to eat.

Several umbrellas in the last three months have succumbed to the rigours of the tropical climate. Skeletal umbrellas are of very little use and I have yet to find one that fits in my brief case and is robust enough to literally weather the storms.

It is not sun however that we have been escaping from this past week. The rainy season has hit us with a vengeance and the rain has been both constant and torrential. It has 'bucketed down' to such a degree that pilots have aborted landings at Changi and trees have been uprooted.

This morning's paper reports that the rainfall is the third biggest in the past 75 years with a month's rain descending in just 20 hours.

I actually don't mind the rain as it is at least warm unlike the Christmas rains one used to invariably experience in Auckland which are often wind-driven and cool.

Even the rats are attempting to escape the wet weather by seeking higher ground away from the drains and into the trees - I think I have just found a use for the Pong Pong tree after all!

Rain Limited Edition Print Roger Smith 12/2006

Viva Las Vivo

Vivo City is the latest in a long line of Singaporean shopping complexes. It was officially opened shortly after we arrived in Singapore and well before it was actually completed.

Biding our time we waited until today to visit the complex to see what all of the fuss was about.

The MRT goes straight to Harbourside and a subterranean maze guides the unwary to the shopping mecca.

Am I alone in thinking that there is something very sterile about shopping malls? What ever layer of glitz is applied they still are built to the same formula and visiting one brings on a rapid feeling of deja vu. Vivo City is designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito and the design claims to focus on nature and open spaces. Being Saturday, I cannot in all honesty say that I saw any open spaces - there were droves of Singaporeans in all directions.

By comparison, I slipped down to my local bau shop on Killiney Road this evening . The pungent mix of balachan (or belacan if you prefer) and other spices were in the air; the sound of a youngster practising the cello in the upper reaches of a shop house and there was a steady, but not oppressive bustle along the footpath. All in all a pleasant and relaxing encounter and the food is not the sanitised variety that one finds in the malls. Give me the genuine smell of 'smoking woks at dawn' any day!

Vivo City has one thing going for it and that is its strategic location. Being situated directly opposite Sentosa Island it stands to benefit greatly from the new 'Integrated Resort' that is about to be built there and opens in three years.

The term 'Integrated Resort' is PR spin for 'casino'. The selection of the consortium to build both casinos has been the subject of much speculation in the local media. I was hoping that the Gehry design might win through as visitors would have come from around the world just to view the iconic architecture but this was not to be.

If you ask Singaporeans about the building of casinos in their country you will get a very mixed response. Many are really worried about the social problems that will inevitably follow the opening of such venues. Others are more pragmatic and appreciate that the country needs to provide more attractions to make Singapore the tourism destination of choice that it once was.

The reality is that Singapores status as an electronics hub is under serious threat from China. Another factor is that modern aircraft can go further without stop-overs or refuelling and combined with the rapidly increasing competition of countries such as China and Dubai, Singapore has to reinvent itself for destination and convention / incentive tourism. An example of this is the cessation of services to this country by Air New Zealand, an airline that had been travelling here for forty years and now has moved its hub further North to Hong Kong.

Dubai is religiously copying Singapore's style as a hub and using copious amounts of oil money in the process so clearly Singapore faces many challenges in the immediate future.

The country will however overcome these as it has a very procative and pragmatic government, one that is thankfully not prone to the endless vacilation and political corection of many western democracies.

Friday, 15 December 2006

Poem - Epiha Road

Black mussels spitting their juice
on corrugated iron
over the slow fire of time

Straight from the shell
plump pink
with tiny crabs entombed

Blackberries picked on the dusty road
rutted sand
rocking grey of the Morris laden down

Black sand of the wild beach
slow cooling and a Taranaki sky
bare reefs exposed to a quarter moon

Black armbands now
for memories of picnic bankets
rusty hooks and seaweed popping
slow to burn, slow to burn

Roger Smith
January 2003

Thursday, 14 December 2006

The Return of Mr Chains

Readers of this blog may recall my earlier observations of life on the 111. This is the bus that I use to commute to work each morning.

Characters reveal themselves at this time of the morning before the rush of Orchard Road and the lure of glittering shops. One such identity is a man I have christened "Mr Chains"

His presence has been missing these past two weeks but this morning I noticed his slight build in a rear seat. It transpires that he has a hobby - collecting rubber bands.

A considerable part of his journey was spent winding bands of various hue around an old matchbox, no doubt with a mind to use these items at a later date.

He gets off in Tanglin Road, two stops before my own. Today he nearly lost his balance in doing so. Possibly as a result of his slight frame or more probably because as a result of the erratic and jerky driving which is the trademark of some of the less patient bus drivers of which there are a few.

Another person of interest on the same bus is an 'occcasional Indian' whom I knicknamed "The Boxer". A man of some stature with a puglist's nose of similar proportions. In the social strata of Singapore he appears a step down from 'Mr Chains'. That is one of the great things about public transport, you get to mix and mingle with real Singaporeans going about their daily business.

The heat has been oppressive these last two days. Being the rainy season usually this is broken each afternoon by a peal of thunder and a good downpour. However this had not happened for 48 hours - until last night. There was a torrential deluge that went on and off throughout the night.

The earlier morning is therefore doubly refreshing with the veil of humidity temporarily lifted. The groundstaff have been busy clearing up after the storm and the willow broom has given way to a motorised sweeper to cope with the amount of debris.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Bah Humbug!

I just can't quite get into the spirit of Christmas this year.

If truth be known I have felt this way for the past thirty years and being back in the tropics with the prospect of working on Boxing Day just reinforces this feeling.

If you celebrate this Christian festival then it might be a different matter but nowadays it often appears that it is pure commercialism promoted first and foremost.

Not that don't enjoy the special light displays that festoon Orchard Road at this time of year. They really do look impressive but you need to wait until 7 pm for the lights to come on.

The other thing that occurs at this time is the last minute frenzy to complete budget spending and get contractors to complete their tasks ahead of the Xmas break. This is when many expatriates emulate the swallows and fly South for the summer.

Completing contracts near Chinese New Year is an even worse proposition so I am told. This delight awaits us when we take over our new 'condo' early January and try to get our minor rennovations completed well before the February 18th date that marks the start of New Year.

It is the Year of the Boar by the way. That is "boar" with an "a" not "bore" with an "e"

My New Year resolution therefore will to be really "piggy" and capitalise on all of the local delicacies on offer! Of course many of the traditional New Year foodstuffs and sweatmeats are now on sale all year round so one does not have to wait until February

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Duck Curry At The ACM

The Asian Civilisations Museum is one of the treasures of Singapore. In recent years there has been something of a museum renaissance and the old colonial administration building (which for a while was christened Empress Place) has become the A.C.M.

To me, museums are about one-to-one experiences with collection objects. I don't reject the IT driven displays that seem so often to dominate exhibits nowadays, but I do enjoy my contemplative spaces where such a communion can take place.

It's the "Stuffed Elephant Syndrome". The iconic object that generations can remember from their museum visits and look forward to upon their return.

When I lived in Auckland, one such object was a small jade buffalo of exquisite form that had belonged in the Chinese Imperial collection and was no doubt looted when the Summer Palace was sacked. It came into the possession of a former colonial Governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey and subsequently ended up in the Auckland Museum collection. When I last visited it was no longer on exhibit, spirited away by a well-meaning curator to basement storage. I felt a certain loss over this action.

The ACM has some wonderful collections, many of which I remembered from a previous visit four years ago. It felt like renewing old friendships to stand in front of such items and wonder about their provenance. If you truly want to understand the history of what makes Singapore what it is today, you should pay this museum a visit.

There is another reason.

IndoChine cuisine is quite distinctive and there is a fine restaurant that served the Museum Director, Dr Kenson Kwok and I, a magnificent duck curry. Not surprisingly it is called the IndoChine Wine Bar and Restaurant.

The crispness of Vietnamese / Laotian food and the subtle use of coriander makes their food very refreshing.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

On The Trail Of The Blue Tooth Dongle

I can't really imagine Elvis singing "Don't step on my Blue Tooth Dongle" - it simply doesn't have the same ring to it.

Equally I cannot fathom where IT people dredge up the generic names for perfectly simple pieces of equipment.

At my last place of employment we had a server labelled "Black Lettuce". I am still uncertain as to how IT came up with this name. Certainly the box was black, but "lettuce"....?

The dictionary defines a Dongle thus " A hardware device that serves as copy protection for certain software by rendering the software inoperable when the device is not plugged into a printer port"

Clearly there is nothing worse than an inoperable dongle - think how exposed one might be to the possibility of being rendered inoperable.

The one I seek however is the of the "Blue Tooth" genus. To put it simply, a small device that I can plug in to the USB port of my PC which allows my blue tooth-enabled telephone and iPAQ to 'talk' to each other in a soothing manner.

Singapore is well endowed with Dongles of various behaviours. There are dongles for storage, dongles for infrared and I am delighted to report, blue tooth dongles.

As with other electronic equipment, it is probably best to head to Sim Lim Square where a good bargain can be had if one is prepared to bargain. It is near the Bugis MRT station and has surplanted the Funnan Centre as the place to buy such equipment

I would not however buy a camera from Sim Lim Square as I much prefer the reliability of my favourite camera shop - Lords Camera who are at #01-79 in Lucky Plaza. Ask for James for a good deal and friendly service.

Our small staff went to Tiong Bahru for lunch and a spot of stationery shopping. The shop's catalogue listed a dongle device. However as it wasn't described in such terms I spent a good few minutes gesticulating with my hands and attempting to explain to a bemused older sales lady, the dimensions of a blue tooth dongle.

Both the terminology and my gestures no doubt reinforced in her mind what strange and obessive people Expat males are! She did take one or two steps back during my explanation and assured me as she scurried away that they didn't have any such thing in stock.

Just as we were leaving the shop however I spied one in a lower rack and the purchase was made. This just goes to show that persistance pays off.

"Mind me Dongle!"

Monday, 4 December 2006

Goodnight Irenidae - a tale of Bluebirds and Bau

I may be mistaken, but I believe I spotted the melodious bird that acts as my wake-up call each morning. Each evening at dusk it repeats the performance.

A quick glance at local bird reference on the web suggests that it is the Singapore Fairy Bluebird (or Irenidae as it is known in scientific circles). It is a rather drab bird to look at, not unlike a crow in plumage, but it certainly has a booming and beautiful call.

There is quite a good photograph of "Irene" at this site.

And so to bau...... the ubiquitous steam bun sometimes spelt as "pau" but still tastes just as good whatever your spelling preference. My favourite is from Ah Teck Bau. They started as a smallish family business off Orchard Road about 50 years ago. The family then expanded their business which was not wholey successful and later reverted to a smaller scale operation. You can find their outlets in places such as Killinney Road and in Cold Storage, Orchard Road.

These bau are a meal in a bun and the secret is in the dough which should be light in texture and taste and generous in the filling.

Saturday, 2 December 2006

A Word On The 111

No not an emergency number in this case. It is the number of the bus that I take back and forth every morning.

It merits a mention as, even at 7:30 in the morning, it is a snapshot of Singaporean life.

There is one driver who goes out of his way to meet and greet every passenger with a friendly "Good Morning!". He gets a similar response from me but catches many of his passengers off guard and the majority do not react, or worse still, turn their heads to avoid any engagement. At that hour of the morning my fellow passengers look in dire need of sleep and many of them do just that enroute.

There is usually a 'brace' of domestic servants and ground staff aboard and they drop off at the embassies and house along the way. There is one man whom I have fondly christened "Mr Chains".

Mr Chains is a wafer thin Singaporean of Chinese ethnicity who has about his person every security device known to man, either attached to his belt or body by a small silver chain or locked away securely.

Even his Ezylink stored cash card (which all of us use on public transport) emerges from a small leather pouch a fixed to his belt, is swiped and placed with great care back into its receptacle.

On the early bus there is usually a gaggle of school girls - all immaculately turned out in spotless uniforms and bubbling with enthusiam.

We pass on the pavement the odd 'mad expat' working up a morning sweat as they jog alongside. More than likely we will also see a varied collection of pampered pooches being walked by Filipino maids. I have yet to see one canine with its owner at that hour but I suspect they are getting family ready for the day.

The 111 is a double-decker bus but as my ride is usually a mere twelve minutes, I have yet to climb the stairs to enjoy the view from the top deck.

Pipes At The Gates Of Dawn

Last evening we celebrated the arrival of a legal letter advising us of the occupancy date for our new apartment - January 3rd.

This is as anticipated, as it usually take two months for these sales to go through. It also means that we can now plan for contractors, designers and the like ( but more of that later).

About 9 pm as we had finished our meal and my wife was at the kitchen sink there was a shout of consternation.

The pipe from the ceiling of our current apartment had burst, showering dirty suds and rusty water everywhere!

What caused this you may ask? Earlier in the day contractors had been upstairs on the 4th floor with vibrating drills and picks lifting up old flooring and removing parquet. In the process they had managed to give the 50 year old plumbing a real shake up (as well as sending lumps of concrete from the ceiling of the apartment on the 3rd floor).

The accumulated rust of 50 years dislodged itself within the pipes and descended to the lowest point in the plumbing system - our apartment on the ground floor.

The outcome was cleaning up until 1:30am in the morning and repeat visits by the plumber throughout today ( and they STILL haven't stopped the leak completely)

What have I learnt from this?

Next to food, Singaporeans love to rennovate. That is, if they can afford it. This is not just a splash of paint and a changing of door handles. They go the whole hog, ripping up marble and replacing it with more marble of a different hue, sometimes even gutting the apartment back to bare concrete.

There is also a curious phenomonon called "en-bloc", which is in reality a collective sale of apartments approached in a frenzy of anticipated profits. This has resulted in neighbourhood fall-outs and legal battles. See Singapore housing boom brings out ghosts, feuds

This interest in rennovation probably explains why there are many "interior designers" touting their wares at trade shows and through the media. Some are very good and some are frankly diabolical with no apparent aesthetic sense whatsoever.

We met one of the former at the Expo Centre Home Show as fortnight ago and tomorrow we go to his establishment at Eunos to see what concept he has for us. I'll report back on this visit to Orange Cube in my next blog.

This afternoon we had our first Xmas party at work. Very good catering and held in the Library at UNSW Asia.

All in all though, it's been an eventful and exhausting 24 hours!