Friday, 31 October 2008

Nervous Nurse and Miss Gongeniality 1950

Nervous Nurse and Miss Congeniality 1950 were sitting at the bus stop again today, metres yet worlds apart.

The former casting a furtive glance at her companions while vigorously massaging her temple and earlobes.

Clad in a tired yet well pressed blue uniform, she was heading for work in Orchard Road.

Miss Congeniality 1950's wardrobe was of a different cut entirely. A ray of faded sophistication, she exuded a prim confidence with her piped black dress and matching jacket, a designer handbag of doubtful vintage and a tightly permed bouffant hairdo.

We were lost in thought while waiting for our morning bus to arrive, planning the day in our heads as beads of perspiration formed on our foreheads.

With a sharp clack Miss Congeniality 1950 opened her handbag and extracted a primly folded paper tissue which she proceeded to dab carefully over her powder caked face.

Being on the plumpish side, the rubbish bin at the far end of the seat proved a singularly unattractive proposition so she deposited the used tissue back into her bag.

These then are my regular companions each morning. Impervious to my cheery greeting they neither salute the day nor each other.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Five Score Years And Ten

This day has dawned with a singular lack of salutation.

Not that it matters in the broader scheme of things, but I am entitled to reflect upon the fact that sixty years ago I came into the world.

At that time a person retired from the workforce but in this day and age we aim for a longer life and shorter retirement period.

I was born in Waitara, a small town in Taranaki which is a regional province of New Zealand. Waitara's sole claim to fame was a large and very dirty river on whose banks a freezing works had been placed. This slaughterhouse processed the livestock from the agriculturally rich hinterlands.

In its early history sailing ships and other small lighters would ply their trade up the river to the wharf braving a treacherous bar at the river mouth. Each spring tide would in later years reveal the steel bones of those who perished doing so.

As a youngster my school friends and I would take our large muslin nets and go whitebaiting in the river or using a treble hooked 'spinner', jagging at the Blood Shoot. The latter action meant hand casting one's line as far out as possible into the offaly murk and then pull it back in swiftly in a jerky action. There was no finesse about this fishing but it brought results.

My father was the town's barrister and solicitor and in later years, a Judge of the Maori Land Court. My mother was an English bride who met and married my father as a result of their meeting when he was in service in World war Two. Captured in Crete he spent several years in Prisoner of War camps in Germany, an experience which he rarely spoke about until much later in life.

I recall I spent my formative years in a modest weatherboard house at 90 Brown Street and would make my way to Waitara Central school when I was a little older, descending a set of steps near Clifton Hill, known as the Zigzag.

Entertainment was kicking a rugby ball around the front lawn and abiding passion for conjuring with pocket money saved and purchases made through deLarno's Magic Centre in Christchurch's Chancery Lane. Our next door neighbour at the time, Jack Olliver, was a gifted amateur magician who proved added motivation. My other love was entertaining my friends with handmade puppets courtesy of my mother's sewing prowess.

Circuses also figured highly in my aspirations at the time and the visiting Worth's and other large circuses are fond memories. I recall being able to balance broom sticks on the tip of my nose from an early age which probably explain a lot about my nasal profile in later life.

Another thing I recall from my first decade of life was an interest in radio. Blobs of hot solder etched their way into my bedroom floor as I struggled to make crystal sets that could pick up the local New Plymouth radio station 2XP. An enormously long aerial wire was strung up from my bedroom window to a pole attached to the chook house.

The value of ceramic insulators was reinforced when I experiences a riveting 'tingle' during a particularly severe electrically storm. Hand winding coils on old toilet roll cylinders was another skill I mastered and they served as a crude tuning apparatus.

Learning to make crude gunpowder out of saltpetre, sugar and charcoal was another lesson in life. Motivated by each passing Guy Fawkes Day we would pack this explosive into old golden syrup tins, insert a wick and detonate the crude devices with glee. Not that my parents were aware of this and we were lucky not to blow ourselves up in the process.

Now sixty years on I am living in Singapore, surveying the world from a marbelled condominium and commuting each day on a doouble decker bus.

It seems a lifetime away from a small Taranaki town and today at sixty reminds me that it is.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Man Savages Chicken

Nothing happens in Singapore without a celebration of food. As the picture above testifies the potluck luncheon is still very much in vogue. Yours truly is depicted coming to grips (quite literally) with a large and slippery roast chicken.

Friday marked the conclusion of my first week in a new job at the British Council in Singapore. I have enjoyed it although, as with any new employment, there is always plenty to learn.

In the middle of next month there will be a lengthy flight to Manchester and London for a conference and meetings and without doubt a shock to the system to experience the chill of a late British autumn. Luckily the warm winter coats we purchased during our holiday in San Francisco at the start of this year will come in handy once again.

I have a new cell phone - an HTC Touch Diamond. It's a sophisticated device that does just about everything except making coffee (and no doubt they are working on that in the test lab as I write). The Touch Diamond uses touch technology which means there is now an excuse for the greasy finger marks that usually decorates every appliance in the tropics.

I discovered its camera yesterday on a trip to Carrefour and it is amazing how the technology has developed, as this little gadget has a camera that is more than 3 megapixels. In 2001 when I purchased a digital camera for a university, 3.1 megapixels was the industry standard for camera and mobile phones were still the size of half a brick......well alright let's be generous, a quarter of a brick.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Gorilla In The Mall

In the main, the mall architecture in Singapore is impressive as is the interior design. There are however some rather obvious exceptions.

Our nearest mall, Anchorpoint, has sprouted a very strange juxtaposition of a kangaroo, a gorilla and some pirates - a sort of spot the odd one out if you will.

The gorilla in question is crouching by some articial shubbery in the basement level of the mall. In contrast, a mouse of the Disney variety occupies one of the upper level restaurant areas and is attracting youngsters of all ages to its fare which is billed as 'healthy'.

Quite why Captain Hook is guarding his dubloons while eyeballing a kangaroo remains a complete mystery?

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Stem Cells and Meltdowns

I am in a pensive mood. It was announced this week that scientists have discovered that testicles are an excellent source of stem cells. This speaks volumes for the Vienna Boy's Choir and coupled with the news that Singapore is thinking of legalising organ donations makes for worrying times.

More worrying for most of the world is the economic meltdown taking place. Not that you would know there was a credit crunch from the multitudes enjoying the free fashion shows and sales at Takashimaya today.

With Nero-like fortitude Singaporeans continue to purchase bucket-loads of 'bling' and haunt the handbag displays at Tang's emporium.

I have now officially left academia as my last day on the NUS staff register was two days ago. My new employment with the British Council starts this coming Monday and I am very much look forward to it.

Already I have a couple of weeks in London mid-November and this will provide a chance to re-acquaint myself with the city.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Yehlui Bound and Good Luck Charms

There is much more to Taiwan than its capital city Taipei. For a start it has a centre spine of mountainous terrain and a coast line very reminiscent of New Zealand.

Interestingly the ancestors of New Zealand's Maori and all Polynesian peoples came from this island as both tribal custom, linguistics and genetics have recently proven.

Following the typhoon hiatus mentioned in my previous post we spent a day touring the northern part of Taiwan and one of the highlights was Yehliu, a headland of wind and wave-sculpted sandstone shapes.

Queens Head with Tour Group

Not that one could see many of rocks that well with the bus loads on Chinese tourist dogging our every step and a guardian with a piercing whistle doing his best to shoo them away from the more unstable structures (which they had a propensity to hug).

The Queens Head (pictured above) is the most famous of the rocks at Yehliu but there are others with more dramatic sculptural forms.

Taiwanese are known for their fish and fresh catch was abundant in the markets. Evidence of this fishing activity was everywhere, from the fleets of squid boats tied up at the jetties to the solitary individuals perched on rocks, rod in hand and braving the incoming swells.

Roger Smith 10/2008

From Yehliu we travelled along the coast and then inland, taking in the usual tourist traps laid out by our tour guide. A couple of these are worthy of mention.

The first was the Mau products shop. The Rukai (Mau) are one of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan and have a great marketing pitch. Their shop specialised in the rejuvenating powers of dried fawn foetuses (which they handed around for inspection) and royal jelly which apparently allowed the former first lady and fourth wife of Chiang Kai-shek, Soong May-ling , to live to well into her nineties.

Needless to say their was no 'essence of fawn' packed into our luggage for the return journey.

The final shopping stop was at a shop that sold jade charms to ward off anything from acid reflux to losses on the sharemarket; the latter being foremost in most people's thoughts at the time of our visit.

While I do not claim to be an expert on jade I do recognise crude carving of this precious mineral when I see it and many of the offerings on sale were just that. Only one couple in our small group were interested in a purchase.

Our tour guide we observed, was wearing one of the charms although he confessed later that he only had become a tour guide in later years after his business had been wiped out by an early typhoon. So much for good luck charms we thought to ourselves. It obviously had not done him much good.

Much to the amusement of my wife and one of the Cantonese in our group we noted that the address of the shop concerned was '158'. To the superstitious Cantonese the numbers '5' and '8' together mean "never prosper". There is a rather delicious irony on the fact that a Lucky Charms establishment should have the misfortune (in the eyes on some Chinese) of a street address such as this.

The final stop for the day was the Shilin Night Market, a 'pasar malam' to use the term better known to most Singaporeans. It is well known for its food and a favourite is the oyster omlette. We gave this a miss having eaten it before in Singapore and having noted how oily the local version was.

The market itself has the usual cheap knock-offs of clothing and accessories. The only thing that really caught my eye was a selection of loudly squawking rubber chickens although I couldn't figure out to how to get it back to Singapore without causing a considerable degree of panic in the Customs Hall!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Typhoon In Taipei

I had thought of calling this entry the Jangmi Jinx as this was the name of the typhoon that followed us to Taipei just a few short hours after we had arrived.

Mercifully our flight from Singapore was only four and a half hours and we beat the storm to the island. Later, as can be seen from this news video above, things got decidely worse.

We had chosen to go to Taiwan for a short break between jobs and because we had never been there. For me the attraction was to get to visit the National Place Museum and view the greatest Chinese treasure that had been whisked across the Strait ahead of the advancing communists.

It was an hour's trip by minibus from the airport to our hotel - the Fortune Hiayat (note this is not the Hyatt). The transport smelt of second hand cigarette smoke and this proved to be a recurring prospect throughout our holiday. I won't dwell on the merits of the hotel but readers can see my online review - “Give The Fortune Haiyatt A Miss!” which I have placed on TripAdvisor.

I am not sure what it is about Taipei? It is a city that looks tired and listless with large swarths of grimy buildings reminiscent of Singapore's Chinatown of thirty to forty years ago. There are some bright patches with new building work, especially in the area near Taipei City Hall.

The much vaunted Taipei 101 Mall is no better or worse than the Singaporean malls whereas the New York, New York complex across the road is far from inspiring.

On the plus side, the Taiwanese are very friendly people always willing to assist a visitor if they they are able to. The green spaces are numerous and the MRT is efficient, providing you are staying close by to a station, which we were not.

Scooters are a very popular mode of transport as can be seen in this photograph. Don't be surprised that when the pedestrian sign goes green and you start to cross the road, a scooter of two weave their way around you.

The road rules seem quite flexible in this regard.

Another interesting fact is that the populace take a Typhoon Holiday not only during the storm but also on the following day.

We discovered this when we took a taxi to the National Palace Museum the day after the typhoon had moved through the capital. The weather was overcast but quite pleasant. Upon arrival at the Museum we discovered a sign that told us the place was closed due to the typhoon! I have never heard of a major museum being closed in such circumstances and they would have lost a lot of business and goodwill as a result.

Towards the end of our stay we returned to the museum and the collection is simply stunning in its artistry and breadth. My favourite was a small jade that was crafted to emulate a cube of stewed pork although a Jadeite Cabbage with Insects is the most famous.

A small album of images

Fishmonger - Taipei

More images can be viewed by clicking here .