Monday, 31 May 2010

Today's Print

St Andrews Before The Storm................................................................................ Roger Smith  May 2010
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Sunday, 30 May 2010

Of Mangoes And Thunderbolts

Bill Bryson at Symphony Space
I don't really count myself as superstitious although I have been known to have the lucky number of 8 about my person when trying to better the odds.

Nor do I believe in most of the old Cantonese tales associated with food, particularly those that decry the consumption of raw fruit and vegetables in the fear that they may produce 'wind'.

If I recall correctly from boarding school days it was the consumption of cooked cabbage that produced this intestinal malfunction.

The sorry sight of the old mango tree beside the Queenstown MRT therefore had no bearing upon my mood.  One of its boughs, which had once sported eight ripening fruit,  had broken under the weight of the heavy crop and was blocking the drain that it had overhung.

It belongs to the TrueWay Presbyterian church which is on the site but they never seem to crop it.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir
I was making my final Sunday pilgrimage to the Queenstown Public Library where I have spent many happy hours in the reference section on the second floor.

Quite by chance I happened across Bill Bryson's memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (click on cover image right).

This is one of the funniest pieces of writing I have read for some time and I had to stifle my sobs of inner laughter to maintain the quite sanctity of the building. Even then the leather sofa on which I sat shook with my mirth.

I know Bryson from his travel writing but his description of his childhood in the 1950's was extemely enjoyable and a pointed commentary of the consumer society of the time.

It somehow seemed fitting that I should end my final library visit  in such a jovial mood, even though I am not one to believe in omens.

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Thursday, 27 May 2010


In the boiled bone
miasma of the morning
the ochre brown of a cockroach
its dead legs spread towards the sky
and the soil
a root claw holding back results of rain

The two glazed elephants
are standing guard
next to the purple of a bougainvillea
while nearby a man with sinewed legs
searches for life
in the dry canal

Roger Smith May 27, 2010

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Airport Violations

Changi AirportChangi. Image by crawl_ray via Flickr
I am not a huge fan of travel statistics but a story in this week's Jakarta Post made for interesting reading.

Unlike Changi airport, Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International is a somewhat jaded cluster of buildings.

While it would be difficult to find an orchid out of place in Singapore, Indonesia's equivalent recorded a staggering 19,391 violations of public order in 2009.

Amongst them:

7,829 street vendors
407 illegal porters
1,392 shoe polishers
1,663 ticket scalpers
1,177 drivers of cars that had their wheels clamped
6,169 illegal taxis
(and the statistic I like best) 227 Scavengers

The authorities also confiscated 11 stoves, 15 mobile phone vouchers, 9 counterfeit banknotes and 17 motorcycles.

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Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Just Four Years Old

I learn to play drums like this at age 13.  This little guy at 4 years old is just fantastic and look how much he is enjoying himself.

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Thinking Strategically

The Tanjong Pagar railway station.Yesterday the Singaporean PM and his Malaysian counterpart signed an important agreement.
Since the separation from Malaysia more than forty years ago that country has retained a sovereign presence in the heart of Singapore.  They own the Railway station and track that snakes its way through Singapore.  It is still gazetted as the Johor Bahru station in Malaysia

When Mathatir was in power his jaundiced view of Singapore and the world meant that this was never going to be resolved.  I am anticipating he will snipe away from the sidelines about this agreement and try to stir up trouble.

What was demonstrated yesterday was political maturity and  willingness to compromise for the benefit of all parties.

There will be a new railway terminus at Woodlands and the equally good news is that the rather charming (if somewhat dilapidated) railway station at Tanjong Pagar will be retained and conserved as a heritage building.  A new rapid transit system will link Singapore and Johor Bahru by 2018.

The Singapore-Johor causeway, spanning across ...On the same day it was announced by Lee Hsien Loong that the water treatment station at Sungei in JB will be returned to the Malaysians when its lease runs out next year.

In the 1960's Singapore lived under constant threats of having their water supply cut off but latter developments such as the Marina Bay barrage and technologies such as NeWater treatment have largely negated this threat of such political blackmail.  The reliance on Sungei is not what it once was.

Singapore plans strategically for its longevity as a nation.  Having no natural resources of its own, other than people, it is reliant on others for the basics of life such as food and water.  Having largely addressed the water issue it also looks to broaden the supply chain for its food supply.

It has plans to invest heavily in a large faming and food processing food zone in North East China and if this comes to pass much of its meat and vegetables will come from this source in the future.

This development is only in the study phase but if it comes to pass fifteen years from now Singapore will no longer be beholden to volatile countries such as Indonesia for its meat supply.
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Sunday, 23 May 2010

Singapore Likes and Dislikes

Things I like
Thinks I dislike
  • The roar of tropical rains
  • The detonation of a thunderclap
  • The scent of pandan
  • The MRT after the morning rush
  • No winters
  • Changi airport
  • The Singaporean spirit of giving
  • The Asian Civilisation Museum
  • The friendliness of the bus drivers on the 111 route
  • The greening of Singapore
  • The verdant growth and colour of the tropics
  • Rainbow mangoes and pisang manis (bananas)
  • The Queenstown Library
  • Chendol
  • Malay food
  • Old Chung Kee curry puffs
  • Ah Teck Bao
  • High Speed unlimited broadband at cheap prices
  • A $1 Walls icecream
  • Durian and Mangosteen
  • The sound of a professional pianist practising in my condo
  • The many good Singaporean friends I have made in my time here
  • The way the country is governed
  • Being able to walk safely on the streets as any hour of the day or night 
  • The Botanic Gardens
  • Marks and Spencers because they stock my sizes
  • Being able to buy good luggage bags at reasonable prices
  • Money changers
  • Being in Singapore during a financial meltdown
  • Lunching in the White Dog cafe at Vivio City
  • Cruising on Superstar Virgo to Phuket and Penang
  • Satay Bee Hoon at Redhill Food centre
  • The kite flying at Marine Parade
  • The East Coast seafood restaurants
  • Cheap drycleaning
  • The Old Ford Factory exhibit
  • The wide variety of fruit and vegetables from many countries
  • Century eggs with sliced ginger
  • Ipoh Pomelo
  • Waiting at a bus stop on a humid morning
  • Litter advertising on poles
  • Attempts by new immigrant hawkers to cook classic Singapore dishes
  • The MRT during the morning rush
  • The energy sapping heat with little respite
  • Spitting in the street
  • Second hand smoke inhalation
  • Begging
  • False Monks
  • Fundamentalist religions taking advantage of the weak and disadvantaged
  • Being pushed off the pavement by inconsiderate pedestrians
  • The Mediacorp free to air channels for their limited and amateurish programmes
  • Highrise littering
  • Smelly drains
  • Cockroaches of every size and hue
  • Being asked to pay $100 for the privilege of going into the new casinos and lose another $100
  • Increasing amounts of rubbish in the streets
  • Ang Mo who make no effort to mingle and learn the local culture
  • Not being able to fit any of the local clothing or shoe sizes
  • The bureaucracy and service at the local banks
  • Ditto for Singtel
  • The cost of freight back to New Zealand
  • Singapore Airlines one way fare costs
  • Highly sugared local bread
  • Indonesian 'haze' when it blankets Singapore
  • Singapore Idol
  • Maids scavenging through the condo rubbish bins
  • The Japanese habit of preparing and eating seafood when it is still alive
  • 3 in1 coffee

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Things I like About Singapore #1

There are many things that I have enjoyed during my time living here and over the next month I shall from time to time record those that have stood out for me.

Starting with the more mundane, I must sing the praises of a local dessert - Chendol (pronounced "chen do").

As with most things that are pleasurable, copious consumption of this treat would without doubt be ruinous to health.  It is rich in both coconut and cane sugar.

The biliously green 'worms' which adorn the creation are green bean flour strips.  It has shaved ice as a base and also contains cooked red beans.  It is the pandan leaf that provides the distinctive under taste.

Some claim that this dish, which is also known as 'cendol', originated in Thailand which may well be true.

The second thing that has impressed me has been the willingness of many Singaporeans to support good causes.  Every weekend there is a roster of school children in the malls or thronging Orchard Road collecting for some charity or other.

But charity does not remain at home and yesterday in the Straits Times there was a rare piece of very good photojournalism. This traced the story behind the recent death of a girl from a remote part of North eastern China who became an escort in Singapore.  An escort is a title that covers a range of activities; anything from a plutonic social escort to a prostitute.

Whatever her motivation or vice, this young lady was found drowned in swimming pool of an expatriate and the Coroner's Court has still decide on the cause of death.  Her family, who are poor peasant farmers, were devastated by the news and sold up their farm to get enough money to come to Singapore and collect her mortal remains and return them to China.

Their story touched the hearts of Singaporeans who rallied around and provided free funeral services as well as collecting a large sum of money to give to the family.  The outcome being that the donations have enabled the parents to buy back their farm.  Even though they have lost a daughter, at least they now have the wherewithal to provide for themselves through the land.

Such acts of generosity are not uncommon in Singapore.
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Friday, 21 May 2010

Today's Print

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Three Stone Jars

Singapore FoodI neglected to mention in early postings that some of the best food options in Singapore can be found in the least expected places.

When I worked at the British Council in Napier Road we were extremely lucky to have one of the best lunch cafes in the city within the complex.

The Three Stone Jars serves very good western and asian fusion food. in a cafe surrounding and the prices are much more reasonable than the nearby Tanglin Mall.

Peter the proprietor is an effervescent personality and not only does he serve good food, he also has an excellent taste in music (at least to my ears) with golden oldies from the sixties playing quietly in the background.

An example of their menu are the large chicken thighs (affectionately dubbed 'dinosaur legs' and imported from South America I believe?), mashed potato and two selections of vegetables for around $7.

I also enjoyed their beef rendang which is very distinctive with an acidic accent, unlike the normal creamy varieties one gets throughout Singapore. The recipe is more of an Indonesian style.

The only word of advice I have is to try and avoid the 11am and 1 pm rushes, when the students and staff have a hasty meal before classes and the queues are long.
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Monday, 17 May 2010

The Quest For Pop Immortality

This is a band called The Quests who had their first hit, an instrumental called 'Shanty' in 1964.  As with many bands at that time they started playing cover versions of The Shadows (video below).

The name of the band was derived from the school magazine of the Queenstown Secondary Technical School, located in a part of Singapore where I now live.

They were joined for a while by an Ex-British serviceman Keith Locke on lead vocals.  I still enjoy their musicianship although the songs are nearly fifty years old.

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Sunday, 16 May 2010

I Wanna Eat Economy Rice

Let me take you on a little and typical domestic journey in Singapore.

Each non working day we dine locally which to all intents and purposes means the Economy Rice stall (pictured), opposite the Queenstown MRT.

We exit from the rear gate of Queens condo past the ever slumbering security guard (so I use their title advisedly).  The standard of security personnel seems to have dramatically declined in the thee plus years we have been here.

Then there are two choices; wait for the "green man" and cross over Commonwealth Avenue or hug the shade on our side of the road and go past the Methodist Church, crossing over the dual road via the MRT overbridge.

Today we took the latter.  The sounds of the Beatles "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" was booming out of a small set of speakers above the Queens Bubble Tea shop.  It was a somewhat incongruous juxstaposition of sensory delights.

Bubble Tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980's according to some sources.  The introduction of  tapioca pearls into a cold tea product was all that it took to start an Asia-wide fad.

Past the new lift access for the elderly and disabled which had been a work in progress for months and never seems to get completed and then it is downward on the concrete steps, noting that this earlier version MRT station only has an ascending escalator and never a descending one.

On the right is a view of a building that seems to be morphing into some sort of education establishment but it is decorated in a perfectly hideous combination of colours.

On the left is the queue of walking wounded and the infirmed waiting for the free shuttle bus to Alexandra Hospital.

We pass the first food court and head for the second where the Economy Rice is of better quality and more generous in their helpings.

Shooing of the Mynahs and ever vigilant sparrows we select a couple of plastic stools placed under a slow beating fan.  The air is oppressive as the rains have still to come.

Dogs are know to mark their territories and there is a similar custom when reserving a table in a Singaporean food court.  Not that one cocks a leg; an umbrella or packet of tissues left in full view will suffice.

A plentiful dollop of rice and a 'meat and two veg" are to be had for a mere $2.80.  Replete, we retrace our footsteps stopping off for dessert at the Walls ice-cream cart.  A thick slice of Macadamia ice-cream between wafers (or two slices of bread which is a local custom) costs a further dollar.

I note that the Beatles CD is still playing up in the MRT interrupted only by the canned announcement for the station staff to "please mind the platform gap".

I am old enough to remember the original version of this song when it came out in 1962 (below).  What better way to finish a walk in the noon day sun.

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Saturday, 15 May 2010

Today's Print

Queenstown Wiring................................................ Roger Smith, May 2010

A Modest Hero

Singapore is in mourning for one of the most influential men in its history; a person that most people outside of the country will never have heard of.

While most people naturally associate the modern miracle that is this country with Lee Kuan Yew, equal kudos should be give to Dr. Goh Keng Swee.

The combination of Lee's political savvy and Dr Goh's 'can do' attitude and economic acumen, made for a winning combination.

A graduate of the London School of Economics, Goh Keng Swee was the government's first finance minister but his influence extended far beyond this initial portfolio.  He founded Singapore's army and introduced National Service, a move at that time which did not meet with universal approval as the thought of a precious son being called up was a step too far for some.  However, as in most things, his vision proved to be the correct one.

Goh Keng SweeWhen Singapore succeeded from the Malaysian Federation in 1965 he had to quickly find an alternative economic model and did so.  The transformed a swamp in Jurong into the industrial heartland it is today and made manufacturing the secure base Singapore needed to survive and thrive.

Born into a wealthy Straits Born Chinese family in Malacca he moved with his family at the age of two to re-establish themselves in Singapore. His father later became manager of the Pasir Panjang rubber estate.

Apparently he had a dislike for his Christian name Robert and he shared this trait with his later collaborator Lee Kuan Yew, whose Christian name is Harry.

Keng Swee was a shy boy who buried himself in books but this quest for knowledge and ideas was the building blocks upon which he built his life.

Singapore zoo, Jurong Bird Park, Sentosa and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra were all formed under his stewardship.

His official biography states that he left politics in 1984 for personal reasons.  I am informed by people around in the '80's that he had  a marked divergence of opinion with his colleagues on using the people's CPF money to fund the soon to be launched MRT system.  Whether this had an influence on his departure I do not know but being a man of principle, I suspect that it did.

The MRT has since developed to be Singapore's most important public transport system so these fears proved to be unfounded. But at the time it was first promoted, investing in this transport scheme was perceived by some to be a risky venture.

After leaving the Singapore political scene he was invited to provide guidance with housing policy development in China.  I am sure that country will also be mourning his passing.

So I, like others this week, are paying tribute to a man who we never met in person but whose country we now enjoy thanks to his dedication and vision.
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Friday, 14 May 2010

On the 111

The Watcher

Singapore's Best Bus Driver

When I first came through Singapore in the early 1980's there were still a few of the old garrulous drivers around.  If one was well dressed, or an Ang Mo, their expectation was that you would take a cab and leave their bus to the "common folk".

Fortunately this attitude is long gone.  My regular bus is the 111 (or 'triple one' as it is known to the locals) and we are blessed with older drivers who are both courteous and friendly.

Some of the newer Indian drivers seem to have major problems coordinating the brake and the clutch which results in a very jerky journey.  This is reminiscent of my passenger experiences in Calcutta which I had hoped never to repeat.

The older Singaporean drivers have none of these problems and they proceed with a commendable calmness.

The best of the lot is the Malay bus captain (driver) pictured.  His first name begins with "S" but I did not  catch his full name.

He is unfailingly good humoured and enjoys nothing more than to have his jovial greeting reciprocated.  We first met each other when I caught the bus from Penang Road in 2006.  Now I go the other way on the same bus from Queenstown, so we still see quite a lot of each other.

This man deserves a public service medal for his deportment and customer service.  I hope someone reading this post will recommend him and I shall miss his beaming presence when I return to New Zealand in July.

It is this sort of human experience that makes living here worthwhile.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Food For Thought

As my time in Singapore nears it end I thought I would start highlighting some of the little things that have really appealed.

It is no coincidence that there have been several references to food in my previous posts. One of the great delights of this country is the sheer variety of food and its abundance. Whatever style of cuisine you fancy, it's all here.

And it is not hellishly expensive. Over the four years we have abandoned any pretence of home cooking and our main meal of the day (lunch) is consumed at hawker stalls, food courts and the occasional mid-range restaurant.

My favourite is Malaysian food.  Spicy, with varying degree of hotness, it is also some of the most flavoursome.  Just yesterday a meal at the food court in the Botanic Gardens (pictured above) cost a mere $5.80 for two meat and two veg; served as almost all meals are, with a generous portion of rice.

At our local Queenstown food courts the prices are even cheaper with one meat and two veg from the economy food stall costing under $3.  We frequent the second of these food courts; the one furthest away from the MRT escalators.

Singaporean, Malaysian & Indonesian CuisineNot that all hawker stalls are so salubrious.  The rather infamous Sheik Allaudin, managed to kill two people and poison 150 others with his unhygienic practices. The National Environment Agency (NEA) has decreed that he will never again sell Indian rojak and he was very lucky he was not charged with manslaughter.  He escaped with a $9,000 fine and in my opinion got off very lightly.

But even this should not deter people people from trying the real food of Singapore.  It is not to be found in the sanitised mall food courts.  One needs to go to the 'Heartland' to get the best the country has to offer.  Places such as the Redhill where the Teochew style Satay Bee Hoon is legendary and the queue is lengthy.

Eating is a national passion and I have enjoyed every culinary moment since we arrived in 2006 and during my many trips preceding that date.

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Monday, 10 May 2010

All That Glitters

Got some spare gold lying around? A branded watch or two?

The government, I have belatedly discovered, runs and alternative chain of pawn shops to the private enterprises.  These are run through Singpost and are called Speed Cash outlets.

In the past gold jewellery (which is usually 99% pure here) would be trade back to the goldsmith at point of purchase and for a commission of 15% it could be cashed in.

Chinese families often carry gold as a hedge against bad times.  Watching the gold being tested for purity by the smith is also inetersting as they rub it against a small stone and assay it.

Speedcash offers a better deal to Singaporean families, so a friend of ours has informs us. Instant cash is paid out for valuables witha 6 month redemption period and a modest interest rate is charged. If one doesn't claim it back then the company will auction the item.  If at auction the article raises more than the previously redeemed rate they will send you the balance,

This seems a fair and equitable system and I suspect with the opening of two casinos in Singapore that business has been brisk.
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Saturday, 8 May 2010

The New Suit

Street sign for Orchard Road in Singapore.Image via Wikipedia
I have very good friends visiting from New Zealand and today we had the pleasure of taking them to partake of some of the shopping sites along Orchard Road.

Orchard Road has been featuring for other reason this past week.  A small plague of rattus rattus has been disrupting the shopping frenzy near Orchard Plaza.

This is not exactly the publicity that any city desires so the pest control offciers have moved quickly to eradicate the vermin.  Bad publicity may have had an impact on local business but hopefully the green belt along the roadside is here ot stay.

In fact it is the greening of Singapore that drew much praise from our guests today.  They enjoyed the flowers and trees as much as the malls.

Falling Towards England (Picador Books)On the shopping list was a men's lightweight suit.  One of the many tailors in Koek Road won the right to tailor the suit in an imported herring bone pattern, for the princely sum of $Sing 330.  This being Saturday, the suit will be ready for its one and only fitting on Monday.

I look forward to seeing the result of this craftsmanship upon our return to Auckland in July.

Having read Clive Jame's hilarious account of his Singapore suit purchase in "Falling Towards England", I mused as to what the result might be?

The author only had a day to get a suit made as his liner was stopping over in Singapore.  It was duly delivered to his cabin in a small bundle of brown paper bound in string.  He did not unwrap it until he was in London and rushing to his first appointment with a Fleet Street editor.

As recounted, he was forced to shake hands from the elbow as he didn't dare rasie his arms for a full saluation; the tailor had not sewn the seems under the arms!

I am sure my friends will be very pleased with their result.  It has been lovely to see them and to share a few of the sights and sounds of Singapore.  It is very easy when one lives in a country for a period to time to adopt a jaundiced view.   So re-living the 'joy of the new' through someone else's eyes is a reminder as to just how vibrant the Orchard Road thoroughfare is.

A very fine bottle of New Zealand wine was also gifted to us and I intend to sample when the time is right.
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Today's Print

Tanglin Leaf...........................Roger Smith  May, 2010
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Thursday, 6 May 2010

Aircon Blues

With uncanny timing, the air conditioning at work has failed and the welcome respite after a 20 minute wait at the bus stop each morning is sadly missing

This would not be hugely problematic in more temperate latitudes but in the middle of hot spell in Singapore it is most unpleasant.

At least at home we have fans to move the breeze about; a mechanised version of the punka wallah.  Here in the office we are without even this creature comfort.  I am beginning to realise why most offices in Singapore provide a shower cubicle.

Not that opening the windows brings any respite as the air is very still and the humidity around 100%.  An open window simply bring a cacophony of traffic noise from Orchard Road.

Not everyone is enamoured about air conditioning and there are some fairly extreme theories attached to it.

One guru states that "one of the things that can affect your cholesterol levels as well as your blood pressure levels is having to go in and out of an environment that has air conditioning."  Based on his prognosis my blood pressure this morning should be climbing rapidly.  It is, but not for the reason he states - I simply hate being hot and sticky.

At least the bus this morning was in full working order so I managed to cool down en route.  I shall miss my short trip to and from work when I leave Singapore.  It has been an opportunity to observe my fellow passengers as they slumber.

Oct.In true Sherlock Holmes fashion I play a little game of trying to ascertain what lifestyle they lead.  Not that I have been very successful in the art of deduction.

Just today I discovered that one of my fellow passengers whom I thought to be simply reserved was in fact profoundly deaf.  I observed her delight as she recognised a friend with a similar affliction and they spent their journey signing to each other.

The temporary loss of air conditioning somehow pales into insignificance when compared to a major disability such as deafness.

As I writ, a bevy of technicians are walking around the building scratching their heads and looking skywards.  I remain confident that will be a temperature drop in the near future.
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Sunday, 2 May 2010

Crossing Merdaka Bridge

Concourse level, Queenstown MRT Station on the...Queenstown MRT                      Image via Wikipedia
In the old days a funeral procession always included a trip to Merdaka Bridge to encourage the soul to cross over to the other side.

Nowadays the procession in Queenstown detours near the MRT over-bridge as a substitute.

If one believes in a spiritual presence (and I am not sure that I do) then a good proportion of my spirit will forever be in Singapore.

Arriving at Changi airport has always felt like coming home and this has been particularly noticeable during my time with the British Council as I have been travelling frequently in South East Asia.  It is a strange experience as I can honestly say that I have not felt that about any other port of entry.

This is also my first entry typed from the Queenstown library using the free wireless@sg network. I am in the "quiet" reading room of the library which has just celebrated its 50th birthday.

Yesterday we went back to the food court at Anchorpoint; hadn't been for several months since the free bus from the Queenstown MRT re-routed to Tiong Bahru. They do say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and I was really looking forward to my favourite - Village Smoked Chicken. A bit of a misnomer as an entire village isn't involved in the culinary process.

The stall no longer exists!  The long hours didn't mix with a young family and so they have closed down.  A tragedy and I will leave Singapore with happy memories of the meals they produced.

So perhaps it is time to go, as the places I frequent change hands.  Where and what we will eat when we return to New Zealand mid year has yet to be decided.

We will cross that bridge when we come to it.
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