Saturday, 24 February 2007

Making 'Hei' While The Sun Shines and Funky Gibbons

Yesterday our staff celebrated Loh Hei, which involves the very pleasurable pursuit of tossing large quantities of raw fish and vegetables into the air while reciting various auspicious sentiments related to the New Year desire for prosperity, health and general well being.

You are a natural 'tosser' I hear you say, so you would be in your element. Quite so!

The above mentioned vegetable/fish dish is actually named Yee Sang and the Lo Hei which is one of the statements made as one's chopsticks are held aloft, refers to liveliness, prosperity and longevity.

Newcomers to this ritual were well briefed by one of our Chinese Singaporean colleagues although I should record that some were a little too enthusiastic in their aerial acrobatics as growing piles of noodles on the floor bore testament.

As a staff bonding session it sure beats the more conservative European team building exercises much beloved by management consultants.

Do, Do, Do the Funky Gibbon was a lyric from a song of the same name by the Monty Python cast.

Even though the song is never likely to make a come back to the charts, gibbons are very much to the fore at the Singapore Art Museum.

Late morning we payed our first visit to the converted St Joseph's College (above) and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibitions.

Chen Wen Hsi was a pioneer artist in Singapore and mastered both traditional Chinese and Western art forms and media.

He had a fascination with birds and animals and his gibbon and wading birds paintings were very stimulating and full of life.

The other thing that impressed me about the SAM was the permanent collection of South East Asian art.

A very impressive addition to the Museum was the Venezia Cafe where I enjoyed their lunch special of a generous helping of Slipper Lobster linguini, soup, bread and coffee for $15++.

The Slipper Lobster was not wearing any footwear but did resemble the Australian Morton Bay Bug and I suspect that its name comes from the splay of its tail which does vaguely resemble a slipper.

We will definitely return to the SAM from time to time to take in the exhibitions. The 111 bus from outside our condominium took us practically on the museum's doorstep so we are fortunate with the public transport.

On the way back we dropped into Deli France and picked up some of their discounted chicken patties, which we had previously observed drop to $1 in price after 1pm.

Tonight is the big Chingay parade down Orchard Road. Although the event is now largely associated with Singapore, it actually started as a float parade in Penang in 1905.

I watched the show on television and then quite by chance discovered the Malaysian equivalent on their television channel. The Malacca Chingay appealed to me more as it retained a focus on the traditional Chinese performances associated with the New Year. The repetition of unstructured 'dances' by community groups in the Singaporean parade made it a bit tedious. That said, Singapore had floats and Malacca did not.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

"Genting" - Limited Edition Print

Genting - limited edition print
Artist - Roger Smith

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

A Gentle Genting Caper

We have just returned from four days away; a quick respite from the heat of Singapore. Our destination of choice was the Genting Highlands which is an hours drive away from Kuala Lumpur or seven hours if you did what we did and went by coach from Singapore itself.

We decided to beat the Chinese New Year crowds and went two days before the festivities commenced. This would give us a fair chance of getting a reasonably room on a non-smoking floor of the rather optimistically named, First World Hotel.

We rose at an ungodly hour to ensure that we got to the Queens Street bus terminal in time for the 6:30 departure. The cab we booked for 5:30 am arrived early and so when we got to the terminal (which was in fact a dilapidated shed with a grimy window) it was not yet 6 a.m. Our plans for buying some breakfast evaporated as nothing was open. Eventually, while I guarded the suitcase, my wife managed to find an open shop in a nearby street.

The luxury coach was a double decker and we passengers were accommodated on the upper level. The bottom level seemed to be largely occupied by a day bed for the driver and our luggage shared the same space. The bus's brochure proudly proclaimed that it had reclining seats. I now know this to be true, as the catch on my seat was faulty resulting in me travelling the entire journey in a reclining position. Not that I was complaining as the early start to the morning made this a most pleasant position to be in.

The roads in Malaysia are excellent and maintained through revenue gathered at toll stations along the way. The landscape is dominated by oil palm plantations which is one of Malaysia's foremost industries.

We had two stops enroute and a meal in Yong Ping where I purchased and attempted to digest probably the worst bau (steamed bun) I have ever tasted. As will all such bus halts, the prices were steep by local standards. The Malaysian Ringgit is about 2.2 to the Singapore dollar.

Having passed through the outskirts of K.L. we climbed rapidly into the Genting Highlands and there looming above us was the multi-hued, Colditz of gambling and theme park gratification, the First World Hotel. Because of the altitude it was almost permanently mantled with cloud which made the entire complex a most surreal apparition (see picture left).

For the first two days we had a relaxing time enjoying the coolness of the air which is a marked contrast to the humidity and heat of Singapore. However on the eve of Chinese New Year the experience changed dramatically with a huge influx of guests, many of whom seemed to be on cheap package tours from China.

The hotel has 6,000 rooms and each one seemed to have an extended family in it. Every second person was a chain smoker and even on our "non-smoking" floor the occupants flagrantly ignored the rules and smoked as and when they wished. None of the staff seemed either able or willing to police the non smoking ban. The great irony was that the lobby was meant to be smoke free but other public places such as the casinos and eateries were not. This meant that non smokers such as ourselves and the staff, were subjected constantly to second hand smoke and our clothes and skin stank on cigarettes by day's end.

It is not a good omen that one of the successful bidders for the Singapore Integrated Resorts - to be built on Sentosa - is the Genting Group who own and operate the Genting Highlands resort. I hope that Singapore government takes a very tough stand and bans smoking from the start, to protect the staff who work there and patrons in general from the insidious danger of passive smoking.

The trend world wide is move to a smoke free environment and in New Zealand smoking is banned in all restaurants and public places such as casinos. Australia is moving in a similar direction and despite the protestations of the gambling industry, revenue barely dipped with the strict introduction of such policies.

Our room in the First World Hotel was small and basic. If we stayed again we would pay more and upgrade to a World Club room which are more spacious and better appointed. No air conditioning was in evidence nor required as the climate was pleasantly cool. We even called for an extra blanket.

The food experience throughout the entire resort was sub standard. Breakfast in the hotel's eight floor restaurant was cattle class chaos. People milling everywhere, self help toasters with elements so poor they required four passes through the machine to get anything resembling toast, 'hot' buffet that contained some dishes that were decidedly chilled, watered down fruit juices and fellow diners without a skerrick of table manners between them!

Food outlets in the resorts were also marginal with the possible exception of Kenny Roger's Chicken and a local variation called Marry Brown. No, this is not a spelling mistake, it is Marry not Mary.

I had only been to Genting once before and that was twenty years ago when there was but one hotel/casino. The theme park and the other hotels are more recent developments with the park itself being a very popular destination for children and are of comparable standard to those in the States.

Chinese New Year entertainment was not that inspired but we did view a traditional Lion dance as well as some singing groups who performed on the public stages.

Lessons to be learned from our holiday?

Firstly don't travel to a Chinese-oriented resort during Chinese New Year as the crowds are indeed madding.

Secondly, pay a bit more and stay in a better class of room. The climate was certainly invigorating - the smoking was not.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Where is this Blog read?

I welcome readers from 30 countries namely:

Singapore, New Zealand, United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, India, Italy, Germany, Taiwan, Sweden, Portugal, Japan, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Europe, Spain, Mexico, China, Thailand, Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, France, Indonesia, Vietnam, Ireland, Turkey

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Poem - I've been assaulted by food

I've been assaulted by food
from health once decidely rude
all thanks due to pisang
and kueh keuh and like
my stomach's distended
and I'd fall off a bike
I've been assaulted by food

I've been seduced by good food
from morning to night it's the mood
with promise of bau that just won't go away
and a nagging suspicion that one day I'll pay
I've been seduced by good food

I have been poisoned by food
laid low to a bug tough and crude
Was it the curry or chillie or spice?
or coconut left in the sun just a thrice?
to be able to rise from my bed would be nice
I have been poisoned by food

I will rise from my sick bed again
stride forth through the food stalls and then
probably settle for pure juice, yoghurt and fruit
with lashing of chocolate and thick cream to boot
I've been assaulted by food

Monday, 12 February 2007

An Antibiotic Episode

This is a short entry after having been laid low by a bout of acute food poisoning in the middle of last week, contacted in our very own university canteen no less.

It is many years since I have have sunk so low so quickly and it reminded me of the other fact of relocating to a new climate and country - the bugs pick out the newcomer and react more virulently on the unsuspecting stomach! This realisation usually happens within the first six months of arrival and I just managed to squeeze my bout in within this timeframe.

At least today my course of antibiotics have been completed (or should that be 'curse' of antibiotics as they too affect the stomach) and I am easing my body back to the realisation that it needs to to eat food.

For my part I have resolved to give the malay food (and chillie in particular) a miss. My second resolution is to write a short ditty on the subject which I shall do when the moods take.

To more edifying matters. We are packing our suitcase in preparation for four days in Genting. This means an early morning start on Thursday as the bus departs at 6:30 am from Singapore and allowing for comfort stops does not reach its destination until about 2pm in the afternoon.

The advertising for Chinese New Year continues unabated, the price of Bak Kwa mentioned in an early blog entry has reached $48 per kilo and poor old "Valentines Day" (which is this week) very much plays second fiddle as a festival in these parts.

As this will be my final posting until after New Year can I wish you Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Friday, 2 February 2007

Springing into New Year

The build up to Chinese New Year is neither quiet nor subtle. One minute it is Christmas and the next the golden doves of peace and glowing baubles have been replaced by red paper pineapples, canned music and assorted prosperity symbols.

Shops are hawking the sweetmeats (my favourite is bak kwa- pictured left) that are a speciality of the season and every hawker centre appears to have a temporary trestle or two with seasonal merchandise and special items such as fruit-bearing mandarin bushes.

Chinese households have live plants in bloom to symbolize rebirth. Flowers are symbols of wealth and elevated career positions. There are a lot of pussy willow and plum blossom brnaches for sale in the markets at the moment. According to some sources plum blossom reliability and perseverance.

Chinese believe that flowers are fundemental to the formation of fruit. Therefore, it is very important to have flowers and floral decorations.

If you want to know more about the Chinese New Year festival I would suggest a visit to Wikipedia

So how are we celebrating the New Year - by escaping from it, that's how!
We have booked a few days up in the Genting Highlands which promises cool airs and the ability to lose money quickly in the local casinos if one feels so inclined.

It is a seven hour coach trip from Singapore to Genting so here's hoping the bus is of the highest quality, especially as we need to board said vehicle at 6:30 in the morning.

I have alluded to the frenzy of buying that accompanies Chinese New Year with the concept of new clothes "inside and out". This includes footwear but as with most things in town, if you know where to look there are bargains to be had.

Ten minutes walk from us is the Queensway Shopping Centre, one of the older malls. Its claim to fame is that it is full of sporting and sportwear shops. You can buy a good pair of branded sandshoes much cheaper than in the main shopping districts and it is the same location where I get my large format prints produced - the upper levels are reserved for print shops.

Today we walked up past Anchorpoint to Queensway and bought two lightweight windbreakers at less than $25 a piece. These are for our forthcoming sorte to the Genting Highlands. The night airs there range from 13 to 17 degrees and we of course have become acclimatised to much higher tempertaures in recent months.