Wednesday, December 8, 2010


This whole WikiLeaks thing reads like a James Bond plot. Julian Assange looks like a typical James Bond villain, and even his name sounds like it came straight from Ian Fleming’s pen. A brilliant hacker and maladjusted man of mystery with a checkered past, he is a hero to some and a scourge to many. His plot is not to steal gold or an advanced weapon and use extortion or blackmail to dominate the world. It is to use the modern day version of wealth in the form of information, possibly to bring down governments.

One expects to see 007 chasing him down the Swiss Alps on skis, with machine gun bullets kicking up snow all around him. Then, back at the chalet, a brief encounter and some witty repartee before one escapes from the other. Assange does not live in a fantastic hideout beneath the sea, but his whereabouts are never known. Maybe he does live in a fantastic hideout beneath the sea, with hundreds of soldiers prepared to do his bidding and die for him.

So when it was announced that he has turned himself in, I was sceptical. It seems too easy. It’s also taxing to keep up with the latest accounts of this story, an example of truth being stranger than fiction. I think I’ll just wait for the movie to come out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Thanksgiving Day

We recently celebrated Thanksgiving, a day when I especially miss home. In Miami we would have the extended family gather for a huge meal of roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables, apple pie and other desserts, and football on TV and in the street. My Singaporean Thanksgiving usually features a roast chicken in place of its larger cousin, stuffing, and apple pie if we can find one, and that’s about it. This year’s meal was even less. I had a massive buffet lunch (one of the perks turned occupational hazards of being a trainer) and had little room for dinner, so we had chicken rice, with chilli instead of cranberry sauce. If I ever get less traditional than that I could not in good conscience even call it Thanksgiving.

In the US nearly every radio station plays “Alice’s Restaurant” at least once on Thanksgiving Day, and never on any other occasion. This is an 18-plus minute song/story performed by folk singer Arlo Guthrie, whose folk singer father, Woody Guthrie, is best known for another American folk standard, “This Land is Your Land.” “Alice’s Restaurant” is about a memorable Thanksgiving when Arlo and his pal helped their friend Alice dump some garbage and got arrested for littering. Some time later, at the neighborhood draft office (this being during the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War), Arlo found himself deemed unfit to serve in the army and shoot people because of his littering conviction. It’s impossible to capture the flavor of the song in a paragraph, but the curious reader is directed to Youtube.

This Thanksgiving I decided to make “Alice’s Restaurant” part of our family tradition. After our chicken rice, I fired up the computer and played the video for Cherisse. She found it boring, so we tried Woody’s version of “This Land is Your Land.” Cherisse found this boring too, so we tried the Bruce Springsteen version. Same result. I guess she’s just not ready for it, so I’ll try again in a year or two.

However, I did tell her the story and its significance. “Alice’s Restaurant” has become an anthem of certain important American values, namely civil disobedience, questioning authority, independent thinking, and standing up against injustice. However, these are not particularly Singaporean values. Cherisse is pretty good with the traditional Chinese values such as “calling ah mah,” which means she has to say “ah mah” whenever she greets her grandmother. It is absolutely essential to do this, and considered extremely unfilial not to. A big hug, a kiss, a handshake – no other form of greeting no matter how warm can replace the mandatory (even if perfunctory and robotic) uttering of “ah mah.” So I want to make sure her American values are similarly inculcated. In my mind, the substance of “Alice’s Restaurant” is more important than the form of the bird being gobbled.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Teach critical thinking in Singapore schools

I have long felt there is a huge need in Singapore for more critical thinking. In all fairness, there is a need for this everywhere. But I can’t count how many times I have read of local people falling for the ‘magic stone’ scam, having sex with witch doctors to rid themselves of demons, and various other scams. Peddlers of slimming pills and weight loss spas of dubious – make that zero – value are making money hand over fist. Even bogus schools open, overcharge students, and disappear with alarming frequency.

The Sunday Times (known as the Straits Times the other six days of the week) had a beauty of an article about the alkaline and ionized water business. Buried in the middle of the article are comments by a local doctor noting that medical benefits of these types of water have never been recorded in any “reputable or scientific medical journal.” But one chap claims that his gout is not as severe after drinking two litres of alkaline water a day for five months. The guy didn’t say how much (or little) water he used to drink. My guess is the benefit is due to drinking large quantities of water (plain or otherwise) and/or psychology (believing is seeing).

A housewife has been drinking the stuff for five years and has not noticed any health benefits, but continues drinking it because she has become used to the taste and texture! What a compelling testimonial. But hey, maybe she is a Nobel Prize winning chemist – the article didn’t say she wasn’t!

An unidentified consumer claims alkaline water is “easier to swallow.” What kind of water did she drink before – ice?

After reading comments like these, I think alkaline water just might cause brain damage!

The piece concludes with one doctor who refers to a study showing positive health benefits. This doc, it so happens, sells alkaline water at his clinic. The reader can put two and two together.

Man in the street testimonials are OK for movies and restaurants, but for matters of science and medicine we should stick to impartial and knowledgeable authorities.

If anyone knows the identity of that ice swallowing genius, please refer her to me. I have a fabulous magic stone I’d like to sell her.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Celebrity doings

The news is full of celebrity activity today. There’s the possible sale of the Beatles’ music on iTunes. Sounds good in theory, but I’d rather have the Sgt. Pepper cover to look at while listening. And some money-grubbing scum suckers have released a posthumous Michael Jackson album, which promises to be a good way to make millions selling substandard work.

Speaking of substandard work, James Blunt is in the news. He’s the guy who had a hit featuring these memorable lyrics: “You're beautiful. You're beautiful. You're beautiful, it's true.” Snore. Cole Porter must be spinning in his grave. Fortunately, it isn’t music putting him in the news, but his claim that he prevented World War III. My, aren’t we important? That bizarre statement ranks with Al Gore’s alleged claim that he invented the internet.

Finally, Christina Aguilera got her very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, joining the ranks of the greatest actors in history. What has she acted in, you wonder? Me too! It says she is in a movie opening in a few days—her very first movie! This must be a guaranteed blockbuster, for her to be so honoured before the public ever sees her on the big screen.

Oh, yeah, there was also news of this British guy who said some bad things in a book he wrote and will be spending some time in prison, but you don’t expect me to comment on that, do you? I haven’t read the book, and I don’t think I’ll find it in the shops, so what can I possibly say. I won’t be seeing Christina’s movie, or buying “Michael’s” new album, or any of James Blunt’s albums, either. But I would vote for Al Gore (again). Or Cole Porter.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pompeii exhibit at National Museum

We had a family outing at the museum to see the Pompeii exhibit. On display were a number of casts made of the original victims of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD. It made me glad I am nowhere near Mt Merapi, currently spewing its guts out in Indonesia. I hope those villagers can run fast. There were also statues, jewelry, household items, and remnants of frescoes and mosaics from the ill-fated Roman town.

In order to appreciate these exhibits, you had to catch glimpses from behind walls of people taking photos. With flash not permitted in the gallery, how good could these photos be? Why not just buy a book if you feel you must see pictures of these items again? To me, taking photos detracts from the enjoyment of the experience.

Aside from Pompeii, there were four galleries with exhibits devoted to aspects of Singapore life. One featured clothing, and few people were in there. Perhaps this reflects the level of attention most heartlanders pay to their clothes. The gallery on local TV was deserted, and judging from the poor quality of contemporary local offerings I can only imagine how uninspiring past programming must have been. The third gallery was dedicated to photography; it too was empty, no doubt because all the photography buffs were crowding around all the other exhibits in the museum. The fourth gallery was by far the most crowded—what could the attraction be? It was all about—you guessed it—food! People were taking pictures of old coconut scrapers, noodle bowls, tea canisters, and other “museum pieces” that are still found in many Singaporean homes!

Museums are usually considered repositories of history, but they are also exhibits of contemporary life.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Computer fun

It’s good to have my computer back, despite the problems it gives me. My hard disk crashed the other day. This is the second time this has happened with this particular computer. The first was just within the one-year warranty period, and this time it was a few months beyond the warranty. Three hard drives within 2½ years is not an enviable track record.

When I took it in to the service center on Alexandra Road I noticed the usual basket of cookies for waiting customers. I also noticed the coffee was no longer complimentary, and the same Pink Panther cartoons were looping on the TV screen. I liked PP as a kid, but I don’t think many adults would choose to watch it while waiting for their number to be called.

In keeping with my policy of not revealing the identity of parties who let me down I will refer to this company by the not entirely random pseudonym of GO. Some readers may recall that in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey” the name of the errant computer was HAL. This was a code which is easily solved by taking the next letter following each given one, so that HAL becomes IBM.

The counter attendant performed a quick test and determined that the hard drive was “spoy oredi,” which is Singlish for spoilt (already). He told me I could purchase a casing for $15 and he would check to see if the data could be recovered. I’m not a gambling man, but this felt like a gamble. When I was a wee lad I remember you could take a tube from the TV and test it in a machine at the hardware store, but I don’t recall my father ever having to buy the tube testing machine first. I took the bet and lost my money – the data was lost.

The rep then asked me if it was under warranty. I told him the first one had been, but I wasn’t sure if this second one was, and suggested he check his “system.” He informed me the system was down. I wonder if it is GO’s own system, or one purchased from a competitor. It was later determined that it was not covered. How much for a replacement? He gave me a figure for the part, which he emphasized was only an estimate, despite the fact that it appeared on his monitor. Perhaps the parts catalog is on a separate system. Plus $95 for labor.

I found a friend of a friend who replaced the part for about half the price (estimated). The machine is faster than ever, and this time I have a three year warranty. However, I doubt I’ll hang on to it that long, and the next one will not be a GO.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rebellious kids and lost millions

The weekend papers provide more grist for the mill. One account tells of a local businessman who lost $100 million at one of the casinos here. How can anyone throw so much money away so quickly, let alone gamble it away? Several stories about the incident have appeared in recent days, but none mentions the person's name. I think it is in the public interest to reveal his or her name, especially if he/she is part of a public company. The fact that anyone can lose so much money at one go in a casino raises serious questions about his/her judgment, recklessness, and fitness to be in a position of responsibility. I wonder if he took a free shuttle bus to the casino, or if he had to make his own way there?

Another piece told of the ingenious ways kids are modifying their school uniforms. They attach elastic bands to the blouse to make it appear tucked in, shorten the hemline, make skirts or pants tighter or baggier, and taper pant legs. Is this really a problem worthy of public debate? I believe it is, though not for the reasons you might guess.

My daughter is fortunate to attend a top school. Due to her picky eating habits, she gets lost in her navy blue uniform. It has not occurred to her (yet) to modify it. Her hair is a bit too wavy for a pageboy haircut and is rather long. Her school gives her two choices for her hair: it could be short or tied. If tied, the hairband can be dark blue or black. It cannot be green (the school's other color), or red, or pink, or yellow, or white, or multicolored. By the way, one of the school's values is CREATIVITY (pronounced "conformity").

Like kids everywhere, some resourceful Singaporean school kids have found a way to rebel against the rules, rules, rules. Next time you see a kid in a modified school uniform, give him or her a word of encouragement. Compliment them on their fashion sense or creativity. As for the straightlaced masses, don't worry. Singapore can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that the next generation of factory workers, store managers, civil servants, accountants, bank officers, and lawyers will be produced in more than sufficient numbers. I'm not sure how many artists, writers, and creative geniuses will be produced. Oh well, you can't eat a poem, can you?!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Finally! My ship came in!

Some of you may recall my account of our reunion dinner at a seafood restaurant at Marina Bay last Chinese New Year. Dinner was not that filling, so we moseyed outside to a replica of a Mississippi riverboat, complete with big red paddle wheel astern, which is permanently moored to the dock. This is something Mark Twain would write about, or Tina Turner would sing about. In fact it is a Tex-Mex restaurant. At the time we just ordered ice cream, but my most Chinese brother-in-law, Ah Tong, surprised me by ordering a chicken chop "fried like Kentucky." Ever since then I have nurtured the hope that we might return there sometime for a family meal.

In my extended Chinese family we always celebrate birthdays with a family meal at the restaurant of the birthday boy’s or girl’s choosing. Birthday after birthday went by, and we always celebrated at a hotel buffet with Chinese and international cuisine. Ah Tong must have forgotten about the boat, despite my frequent hints, and we ended up in one of our usual haunts for his birthday last month. Then my birthday rolled around. There were many hints about wonderful hotel buffets, Japanese buffets, Thai buffets, but guess what? We went to the boat!

This was an experience. We had a Filipino waitress, an Indian cook and kitchen crew, and country music. It was hard to hear the music because there was also a piano, and six little pairs of hands banging away on it (Cherisse and her two very Chinese [despite their names] cousins, Chelsea and Valencia [named after their dad’s two favourite soccer teams]). Ah Tong and his girls had the chicken chops and ice cream, Cherisse had a hot dog, and my mother-in-law gamely went for a barbecued chicken. This was an important test for her, as she will be joining us on our trip to Miami this December. Brother Terence bravely fought off a bout of motion sickness (it is a boat, and it rocks very slightly) to join the rest of us in the Tex-Mex buffet, including turkey quesadillas, chicken tacos, nachos, Buffalo wings, fajitas, baked salmon, baby back ribs, and that American favourite, French onion soup (sans melted cheese). Curiously, there was no salsa or guacamole. The food wasn’t exactly gourmet, but there aren’t many places you can find such a menu on a paddlewheel riverboat in Singapore. On the plus side, the meat on my ribs fell off the bones, and we had the whole boat to ourselves – not a single other diner came aboard the entire afternoon!

This restaurant must have more customers on ladies’ night, or when the piano duo performs, or at happy hour, or they wouldn’t still be in business. After so many hotel buffets, we will remember this outing.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mooncake madness

Twelve years ago I tried my first mooncake. It was a small red bean number baked in New York and purchased at Lucky’s Oriental Market in Miami. For my American readers, it was like a large, round Fig Newton. Then my girlfriend (now wife) sent me a box of four assorted mooncakes from Singapore, containing the usual golden/white/brown/green lotus paste with one or two dried egg yolks in the center. They tasted much nicer than the stale red bean hockey pucks.

For the next several years I looked forward to the mid-autumn festival and an ever-expanding array of mooncake offerings. Then I got tired of them, even though each year brings both new variations and the traditional warhorses.

This year brought a breath of fresh air. I was given a few mooncakes from the hotel at the new Marina Bay Sands that were the best I’ve had in years: chocolate flavored snowskins with a rich chocolate center instead of a yolk, with a hint of booze.

Some local bloggers have recently been denounced for demanding free meals from restaurants they review, bringing a large entourage, and otherwise being greedy gluttons. Let me state that I did not receive any special favors from MBS. However, if they wish to send a few chocolate snowskins my way I would not object. I would ordinarily be happy to go there myself, but with the disruptions from the F-1 race and lack of a free shuttle bus to the IR it would be most inconvenient.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Government still determined to protect heartlanders

After squashing the free shuttle bus services to protect heartlanders from the evils of gambling at the IRs, the government is considering whether R-rated movies (not XXX-rated, mind you) should be shown in heartland theatres. As Chew noted in his Sunday comic strip, people can still watch porn on the internet. And I hear it is not difficult to find porn on DVDs anywhere in Singapore or Malaysia.

Saturday afternoon I took the train and actually got a seat! That may be due to the fact that I got on at Bukit Gombak, the first station after Bukit Batok, which was closed for upgrading, so a lot of people were taking other transport. Anyway, as I headed north I realized that there is a train station just outside the race track. Isn’t the government concerned that heartlanders can easily disembark there and gamble away their life savings? It is clear that only foreigners’ money is fit to be gambled away.

Which leads me to my latest suggestion, which I am sure will be ignored like all of my other carefully thought out ideas: They should open a room of gaming tables and slot machines at the airport. All foreigners should be required to buy a certain amount (say $100) of chips and gamble them away before clearing customs. If they happen to win any money it can be heavily taxed on the spot.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

End of the line

That was fast! One day (or less) after the “investigation” into heartland shuttle buses to the IR was announced, the casino has terminated the service “voluntarily.” However, the buses will still run from the central business district. So all that the aunties and uncles who want to blow their life’s savings at the craps table need to do is catch a bus or train downtown.

According to the ST, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports announced that it would stop this shuttle bus menace in an announcement made at 1.30am! It’s good to know the government never sleeps. No doubt they wanted to get it in before the paper went to press today. Or maybe the casino found out that most riders didn't go to gamble, and they made a "business decision" to stop the wasteful practice.

Is this really going to do any good? There are long queues of people waiting to buy lottery tickets at supermarkets, 7-11’s, and other outlets island-wide every day. This is a country where people will note down the tag number of vehicles involved in traffic accidents so they can buy those numbers. (I never understood that – I guess the thinking is bad luck for him, good luck for me.) But they won’t be able to go to the IR on the casino’s dime anymore.

There are cruise ships that offer free overnight cruises to nowhere with onboard gambling, and these are supported largely by uncles and aunties. They don’t provide free shuttle buses (that I know of). Still, I think their luck is about to get better.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

No such thing as a free ride?

It’s been a while since I’ve written here, but this morning’s Straits Times has spurred me on. The headline reads: Ministry probes free bus rides to casinos. The story says the government is “investigating” free shuttle bus service offered by the two casinos, or "integrated resorts." They don’t seem to have a problem with the shuttle service between the airport and some high-end hotels and the casinos, which helps siphon money out of the pockets of tourists; the concern is over shuttle buses between heartland neighbourhoods and the casino.

Note that all Singaporeans (and PRs) have to pay $100 to enter a casino. If they are willing to do that, a few bucks to get there is not an issue.

ST reporters went on 17 free shuttle rides between heartland stops and a casino. They estimated that during the day one out of seven riders went directly from the bus into the casino, and at night two out of five riders went into the casino. So the majority are getting a free ride and are not even gambling, yet the casinos still offer the service.

The investigation seems to be concerned with whether the public was informed of the service by mailers, which might constitute targeting Singaporeans to patronise the casinos, which is a no-no. Well, now the whole country knows.

By the way, there was recently much debate over whether businesses should be prohibited from stuffing mailboxes with mostly unwanted mailers touting plumbing, tuition, real estate, and other services. The debate has subsided but the deluge of paper has not.

My guess is the investigation is primarily to test which way the wind is blowing. I say let the buses roll. Not just because grownups can make up their own minds, but because someone is actually doing something to improve transportation. A free shuttle bus is always a good thing, especially when you consider how difficult and expensive it is to get to Sentosa.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

This year’s NDP song, and the state of the arts

Last year I was unusually pleased with the National Day Parade song entitled "What Do You See" by local rock band Electrico. I expressed disappointment that it did not seem to get the nonstop airplay that previous songs were favoured with, no doubt because it wasn’t the bland, formulaic, play it safe, let’s-try-to-make-everyone-happy-or-at-least-not-alienate-anyone style that usually characterizes these songs. Back then I made a prediction: “I'm betting that next year's official song will reflect a return to tradition--and be lamer than ever. My head hurts just thinking about it.”

Well, here we are, one year later. This year’s song is out. Unfortunately, I was right. This year’s tune is a bore. At least the first half is; I can’t be sure about the second half because I’ve never stayed awake long enough to hear it!

There’s also a song and video for the Youth Olympic Games being held on our fair island. In it a local songstress, unknown beyond these shores, shares the stage with a few other performers from around the world, including Sean Kingston. I’m not a big fan of his, but even I recognize that he is a global talent. Yet in the video he seems to take a back seat to the hometown girl made good. I feel embarrassed for both of them.

On another musical note, there has been talk to make the dreaded vuvuzela part of the YOG and other local sporting events. For my fellow Americans who don’t watch soccer and hence probably don’t know what a vuvuzela is, it is an elongated horn made of cheap plastic that is blown by fans at South African soccer matches. Here it is in action. [photo from Wikipedia]

Please, please, please do not start this business here. Not only because it sounds annoying – which should be reason enough – but more importantly because it has been overdone already. If you want to make noise, bang two coconuts together, or strangle a chicken, or pop bubble wrap – just do something original!

One local artist recently lamented that he was poor because he was a true artist here, or something to that effect. Brother, I feel your pain.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hong Kong Holiday

I recently took a weeklong vacation in Hong Kong with the wife and kid, and here's what happened. It's a rather long account, so I have included an executive summary for those who prefer a thumbnail sketch.

Executive summary:
Jumbo seafood, dim sum, Victoria Peak, Repulse Bay, beach fashion, Stanley Market, reflexology, more dim sum, Macau, egg tarts, 10,000 Buddhas, give or take a few thousand, old town in New Territories, dog growls, Cherisse howls, Margarete scowls, still more dim sum, Soho, Kowloon, Temple Street, Goldfish Street, Flower Street, Nathan Road, spaghetti.

We arrived in Hong Kong on a Friday afternoon and took a bus from the airport to our hotel in the western part of the island. Getting around Hong Kong is quite easy. Parts of the city have old double-decker electric trams (like the San Francisco cablecars) running down the middle of the street, and there is an extensive train system. We took many trips on the train at various times of the day, including evening rush hour, and were never once packed in tightly like I am in Singapore. And we were able to board every train that arrived, without having to wait for one that wasn’t already packed to capacity. The bus system is also good, and there are many taxis. However, we were able to get around quite easily without taking a taxi.

We had a small suite, which was more spacious than most accommodations in the city, although the shower was cramped and resembled a glass coffin standing upright. The tram stopped right outside our hotel and took us to the city center. We walked around the city and took a sampan (an old wooden boat) to the floating Jumbo Seafood Restaurant (left). This is an ornate, three-story ship-like structure with a few dining rooms covering several acres. We weren’t in the mood for a jumbo meal, so we sailed back to the city and found a ramen shop for dinner, then returned for a walk around our hotel neighborhood.

Our neighborhood was an older part of the city, which is a nice way of saying it was sort of rundown but not a slum. Most HK buildings are not painted regularly or well-maintained and are eyesores. The streets are largely litter free and bustling, lined with all kinds of small shops, restaurants, 7-Elevens, purveyors of shark fins and other Chinese remedies, and reflexology joints. We stopped in a small supermarket for fruit and yogurt for the next morning, but the pickings were slim. “Supermarket” is quite a stretch given the small selection; “barely passable market” is more like it. Found some pears and yogurt and returned home.

Next morning we had dim sum in the neighborhood. That’s what Hong Kongers do every morning – they have dim sum for breakfast. This became our morning ritual, though it was more of a noontime ritual – bear in mind that I was accompanied by two women, ages six and ?, so a late start was par for the course. At least I had a pear and yogurt for breakfast. Most of the dim sum was pretty good, though I would have preferred to duck into one of the many bread shops to grab a few rolls or pastries and get an earlier start. Cherisse would have too, as she is not a big dim sum fan.

In our family, dim sum works like this. I order a couple of steamed items, knowing Margarete will order a bunch more and I will have to help her eat them. I always end up having to eat more than I really want. So Margarete eats one siew mai (pork dumpling) and I eat three, Margarete eats one char siew pau (barbecued pork bun) and I eat two, and so on until Margarete is full and I am overstuffed. Cherisse will complain that she doesn’t like any of it, and might end up with an egg tart.

We took the faithful tram to town and went to Victoria Peak. This is atop a mountain (though technically it may be just a big hill), and you get to the top by riding in another tram, newer and more spacious than the ones plying the streets. This thing ascends at about a 40 degree angle, which is pretty steep. This gives the illusion that the buildings outside are toppling over. A lot of people live in these buildings, which must be pretty expensive and have fantastic views. At the top of the peak is a shopping mall of about six stories. Nothing interesting there – Burger King, Sunglass Hut, 7-Eleven, some electronics stores, gift shops selling the same touristy junk as Chinatown, and the bane of every shopping mall in the world: a Swarovski crystal store. Who the hell buys all these crystals, anyway?

After ascending the five or six mall escalators we came to the observation platform and enjoyed a spectacular view of skyscrapers below us (left). Had the air been clearer we probably could have seen for miles. Yep, the air in Hong Kong is not that clean, and is hard to breathe after a few days.

After looking at buildings, hills, sea, and air, and taking a few obligatory photos, we took the tram back down and boarded a bus for Repulse Bay, so named for a battle in which the British repulsed the enemy. I will resist the urge to make an anti-British joke here.

Repulse Bay is a beach area with some upscale homes and lots of tourists. The tourists walk onto the beach fully clothed, often carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun, and take photos. It seems that most of them have never seen sun, sand, or sea before. About 5% of the people were in swimming attire and either sunbathing or frolicking in the surf like normal beachgoers. The bay is protected by a net to keep out sharks. If I were a shark in an area where my fellows have their fins cut off and are left to die I would be out for blood, too.

This place was hot, so we ducked into a 7-Eleven. 7-Elevens are very popular in Asia, and in Hong Kong you can stand in any randomly chosen spot at see four or five of them. Most do not have Slurpee machines, but this one had a three-spouted one – how advanced! In addition to the usual cola and green apple flavors, they had banana. I never had that before and had to try it. Poor Cherisse – she likes Slurpees but hates bananas, so she had ice cream.

Having partially beaten the heat, we got on another bus to Stanley Market. This is an area with a few winding paths lined with tourist shops, art galleries, clothing stores, and Western restaurants. There are a lot of tourists here, drinking beer, watching soccer, and eating pizza, sandwiches, and everything except Chinese cuisine.

At this point we were quite tired of walking around, so we went back to the neighborhood for dinner at a local dive. The food was decent and reasonably priced. I should mention that there are few tourists in the area. Then we went for a reflexology session. This involves soaking your feet in a tub of hot water, then getting them kneaded and massaged by a woman with very powerful hands. A relaxing end to a long day of walking.

The next day was Sunday, and we got out early (before nine!) to take a ferry to Macau. Macau, formerly a Portuguese colony, is (like Hong Kong) a special administrative region of China. It looks like any other Chinese area, but with more Catholic churches. We decided to wander about free and easy rather than take a tour, and started in the old town area with the Church of St. Paul (left). This is really just the facade of a church that used to be there, with a lot of steps full of tourists taking photos. We walked around the winding cobblestone streets eating Portuguese egg tarts (small pie shells filled with custard that are famous in the district) before settling on a local dive for lunch. The specialty is fried rice with eel and crab roe, which was decent but not great. Then we found another church that looked like a poor cousin of a European cathedral, but still nicer than most modern churches.

Afterwards we walked to the casino district and ventured into the new wing of the grand old dame, the Casino Lisboa. This place was really opulent, with many spectacular pieces of Chinese art. There were urns, statues, and huge, elaborate carvings of ivory, jade, and wood. Cherisse didn’t have her fake ID, so we couldn’t get onto the gaming floor. I’m sure it was a gambling frenzy in there. We took the ferry back in time for dinner in the neighborhood and another reflexology session.

Monday began with noonish dim sum as usual, followed by a ride on the MTR (train/subway system) to the New Territories. This area is more remote. We visited the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas, which is a series of small sanctuaries going up a mountain. One of them had thousands of small Buddha statues lining the walls in niches, though I don’t think there were ten thousand of them. Then we walked to a mall full of modern furniture stores, with a lot of stuff nicer than we have in Singapore.

We weren’t in the market for furniture, so we took a small bus down a series of one-lane streets to the remains of a 12th century village. Much of the original wall surrounding the village is still standing, along with some old temples and houses under restoration. Within the walls are also some newer homes with actual residents living within. We entered a walkway guarded by a big brown dog. The construction workers outside assured us he was harmless; anyway, he was asleep. Defying the “Do not enter” signs, we walked around the compound. A few more large dogs appeared, and it was too late to ask the workers about their disposition. I am not afraid of dogs, though I noticed one was growling in a menacing fashion. I was mentally evaluating our options, but Cherisse acted first – she screamed. This didn’t help, so I decided to walk slowly and avoid making eye contact with the beast, with Cherisse clinging to the back of my leg. Margarete seemed disappointed that I was not bulky enough to shield her completely as well, and followed nervously at a distance. I guess the dogs were convinced that we were not a threat, and we made it back to the little road and hopped on the next bus.

We got out at the train station. This was very much like in Singapore, where the train station is under a neighborhood mall full of fast food outlets, bubble tea stalls, bread shops, cheap clothing stores, and 7-Elevens. The mall is surrounded by tall blocks of flats and is populated by kids in school uniforms spending their pocket money on snacks. We bought some cherries at a little fruit stall and rode back home.

We had a short rest before taking the tram to the city center and ascending what is billed as the world’s longest covered escalator. It is actually a series of covered outdoor escalators leading up the hill to the nightclub district and Soho, a trendy restaurant district. This area is peopled with local yuppies and expats. We found a nice Italian restaurant that served wonderful bread, and I had a good lasagna with layers of pasta, minced beef in tomato sauce, and cheese – without the peas and carrots found in Singapore lasagna. Cherisse was delighted with her spaghetti and left nary a strand on her plate. Margarete also had a nice linguini with clams and a bowl of lobster bisque, and we were all pleased with our selection. Then we strolled around the city’s alleys, lined with little shops and stalls, before heading home for the night.

Tuesday we loaded our bags onto the train and moved across the water (under the water, actually) to a boutique hotel on the Kowloon side, just north of Hong Kong island. This was not as roomy, but was nice and had a normal sized shower. It was in a bustling neighborhood filled with neon signs and tourists. However, our daily program of dim sum and exploring was the same.

There are several streets with different themes. Temple Street is much like Chinatown in Singapore or anywhere else, with streets lined with stalls selling souvenirs, clothing, belts, handbag copies, watch copies, fruit, snacks, etc. Over the next two days we also meandered down similar streets.

Goldfish Street was lined with shops selling all kinds of freshwater and saltwater tropical fish. Many of them, including relatively expensive specimens, were sealed in small plastic bags hanging from racks outside the shops. Cherisse and I decided we are definitely going to get an aquarium soon. We also took a quick walk down the flower market street, but skipped the bird market street due to time constraints.

The main street in our Kowloon neighborhood is Nathan Road. This is very touristy, and you cannot walk down this street without being overwhelmed by touts imploring you to visit their tailor shop to be fitted for a shirt or suit, or to check out their handbag copies and watch copies (“counterfeit” and “fake” are bad words here). I actually did consider getting a shirt made, but I didn’t think they could make a T-shirt that said “No, I don’t want a shirt, suit, handbag copy or watch copy.” I don’t think it would have made a difference anyway.

One night we took a bus to Sai Kung, a fishing village known for its strip of seafood restaurants. These places all look the same, with indoor and outdoor eating areas and large banks of aquariums containing live seafood of all kinds to be cooked and consumed on the premises (left). We had a good meal featuring a whole steamed fish, large steamed shrimp, crabs, some small abalone, some kind of crayfish-like crustacean, and a green vegetable. Cherisse would have none of this, so she had a plate of fried rice. She pretty much had her fill before the seafood arrived, but she patiently waited for us to finish a rather lengthy meal. We decided to reward her good behavior by letting her choose the next night’s meal, which would be our last in Hong Kong.

On our final night the American 1½ of our family was rebelling against the Chinese 1½, and Cherisse chose a local chain serving Italian food. It wasn’t as good as the place in Soho, but Cherisse thoroughly enjoyed her spaghetti, and my spaghetti in squid ink with scallops and fish roe was not bad. Margarete had cannelloni stuffed with spinach and crab meat in cream sauce and a mediocre lobster bisque, and at least two of us were happy with the meal.

Arising early the next morning, we took a bus to the airport and headed home. It feels good to breathe again.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Red Shirts Invade Singapore!

An army of red shirts have occupied the MRT stations. They don’t appear to be from Thailand, they seem very local. I noticed them when I rode the MRT the other day. Their job is to herd people into the trains, admonishing them to squeeze in. I’ve heard that they have such people herders in Japan, and they forcibly shove people into the trains, though I can’t say for sure. But it hasn’t come to that in Singapore – yet.

In the last year or so, as the country has been gearing up for the opening of the two casinos, I mean, integrated resorts, it seems every Chinese soap opera has had a story line about the evils of gambling. The family of the gambling addict ends up as wiped out as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped on their formerly happy home, only the message on these shows is not quite as subtle as an actual nuclear explosion.

How to connect the preceding two paragraphs? You may think that when you tap your fare card on the turnstile you are buying a ride on the train, but in fact you are merely gambling on the chance of getting on the next train. At certain times you may watch two trains go by without any hope of getting on. Once you do get on, your chances of getting a seat are pretty slim.

I’d love to be able to get rid of my car, which is nothing more than a huge tax bill on four wheels. But every time I get on the train I long to be back in the thick of Singapore traffic. And you know how I hate Singapore traffic.

It’s easy to complain. I’d rather propose a solution. My last proposal for the MRT – playing musical chairs at every station so everyone has a fair chance of getting a seat – was not well received. In any case, it hasn’t been implemented. So I don’t expect much with this proposal either: Fire the red shirts, get some dogs to herd the people into the trains, and use the money saved to run more trains.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Doing Business Slowly

As we were twenty minutes early for Cherisse’s violin lesson this morning we decided to stop at the bank and make a small deposit. Cherisse makes her big annual deposit right after Chinese New Year, when she collects more money than I ever saw until I was in my early twenties. But the tooth fairy has been making a few visits lately, so I figured a trip to the bank might be a good experience for her.

This bank had three separate queues: one for their priority customers, one for corporate accounts, and one for us regular slobs. There are ropes for crowd control, and the posts from which these ropes are suspended have small signs advising us to be patient, and the first one predicts we will be served in 15 minutes, while the next one estimates 10 minutes. There is no sign before the 15 minutes marker, meaning you could spend a few hours there. There are no clocks visible to remind you of how your life is passing you by as you wait for slow customers to be served by slow tellers.

We got into the queue just after the 10 minute mark. Several other non-priority and non-corporate customers arrived afterwards, extending the queue to what would have been the 25-30 minute mark. There was one lone teller assigned to serve us all, except for the two special lanes. In the priority lane was an Indian woman who remained there the entire time we were in the bank. Judging from the complexity of her transaction, I believe she was a member of the Mittal family and was financing the purchase of a new steel mill.

In fact, I get the impression that Singapore is a nation of billionaires, because nearly everyone took a long time to do their business. It seems this is always my experience whenever I go to the bank. I’m the only one who can get my business done in under three minutes. Maybe I need to increase my fees.

Periodically an employee from the back room would come out to one of the three tellers and do something before returning to the back room. She would walk with military precision, with her head straight, straining to avoid all eye contact with customers. Were she to meet a customer’s glare there might be some tacit recognition of the need to sit herself down at one of the several empty stations and start serving customers. I wonder what goes on in that back room? I imagine a bunch of employees are watching us customers on closed circuit TV, laughing at our pained expressions.

Our estimated 10-15 minute wait approached 20 minutes before we were served. Cherisse asked me what the bank’s initials stood for. I replied: Doing Business Slowly. (I have a policy of never identifying businesses I write about if the experience is less than flattering!)

Why not move our business to another bank? Like the People-Only-Standing-By-while-the-queue-stretches-out-the-door-and-down-the-street bank? I’ve thought about it, but they all seem pretty much the same. Singaporeans are used to waiting in queues, so why should any business waste money to serve their customers faster?

So our little adventure was instructive after all. Cherisse learned that banks only care about money, not people. And I learned that taking her to the bank once a year is maddening enough, but any more than that is insane. We’ll just hold on to all future gifts from the tooth fairy until after Chinese New Year 2011.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Going Green

You may be wondering what Singaporeans are doing to save planet earth. I’m happy to report there is quite a bit of recycling going on. Unfortunately, it’s happening in the wrong places.

Most of the recycling is happening on TV. For several months you could watch snippets of “popular” commercials in between TV shows and even during regular commercial breaks. Yes, commercials of commercials. You were invited to text in your vote for the best commercial. The voting period lasted almost forever. If there’s anything worse than an annoying jingle running through your head, it’s five annoying jingles in a certain sequence, so you can anticipate the other four as soon as you hear the first one! I came very close to hurling my TV out the window, killer litter police be damned. After the balloting was completed, the results were announced in another torrent of commercials lasting several weeks more. Either they’re running out of programming, or they want to reward their advertisers, or they want to pat themselves on the back, or they want to make money from phone charges. Or they want to recycle!

With that nightmare finally out of the way, what can they show now? There was one recent show comparing expensive and cheap versions of certain items, like mattresses. I think they made four episodes. As soon as the last one ran, they began running the entire series again! I don’t think they took even one week off. Recycling!

Not long ago there was an international theatrical production about fat thighs, hot flashes, and other women’s problems. It was supposed to be funny, but the commercials for it were so unfunny and boring it made me drowsy. I’m glad I know where to get a cheap mattress. A few months later it was back for another run! Recycling!

A local theatrical production with a hallowed past is also back for yet another encore run!

And the Chinese TV star award show was just on, using the same annoying theme music it always uses! A fanfare of fifteen notes, repeated endlessly. Recycling! Can’t they get the national tunesmith (the guy who writes almost all of the annual National Day songs) to come up with something new?

But what about real efforts to go green? Well, there has been a movement to eat local. By this they mean eat locally produced eggs, chicken, pork, etc. Or at least food trucked in from Malaysia, as opposed to flown in from Australia. [Note: They advertise air flown pork – how else would it fly, through the water?!]

This is all wrong! If you want to save the planet, eat local – as in, near your house. Every Singaporean has a food court or coffee shop within fifty paces of their home. And they all have the same food – rice and noodles with assorted toppings and gravies, curry, seafood, and Muslim and Indian food. But people won’t go downstairs to eat. They will get in their car and drive halfway across the country to buy a three dollar packet of rice or noodles from some other food stall that’s supposedly better! That explains why traffic is worse on Saturday afternoon than during rush hour on a weekday morning. Countless tons of carbon emissions are shot into the air every day by people driving around for food they can get just outside their door! If you’re serious about going green, support your nearest hawker!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Growing Old in Singapore

There’s talk of turning Pulau Ubin into a retirement village. Located a few minutes by bumboat from Singapore proper, this island is known for its kampung flavour. In other words, these folks could spend their final years in much the same environment as their childhood years.

In the US when people move to a retirement community the men usually get a white belt and white shoes. I have no idea why, but almost all of them do. I wonder if Pulau Ubin newcomers will don sarongs?

Overall, I like the concept. I just hope they have a Shop ‘N’ Save there. Many elderly Singaporeans would be lost without this supermarket. It gives out a sticker for every $15 dollars spent. When you fill a card with 12 stickers ($180 worth) in one month you get a 5% rebate ($9). I never spend enough at this place to fill a card so I give my stickers to the auntie at the door. Yes, there is an auntie who stands just outside the store asking people for these stickers. As she is always there when I go there, she must spend hours a day every day pursuing this hobby. I’m not sure how long it takes for her to fill a card, or how much groceries she buys every month, but it seems like a hard way to stretch her food budget.

A few meters away is another auntie doing the same thing. If they get too close they hiss at one another. Gotta protect your turf! Though SORRI has not conducted a comprehensive survey, I have noticed this occurring at more than one outlet. What an undignified way to spend your Golden Years. And in a country that supposedly reveres the elderly.

Of course, retiring to Pulau Ubin is not for everyone, only those who can afford to actually retire.
Taxi fares in Singapore are low compared to most developed countries. You could say that cab drivers are subsidizing the nation’s growth. And what does the nation do for them when they’re old? Why, it allows them to keep on driving their cabs into their seventies!

And we’ve all seen elderly folks cleaning tables at hawker centers and sweeping up litter. No rest for these weary, until they find it in the grave. But maybe they prefer to live a life of purpose rather than loafing around the mahjong table.

There seems to be an abhorrence of the very idea of a welfare state, which is understandable. I don’t understand how this justifies taking the opposite extreme, and making old people toil every day of their lives.

On the plus side, there might be a need for taxi drivers and table cleaners in the retirement village.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Gong xi fa cai, pardner

Who says the Chinese New Year routine has to be the same every year?

This year we went to one of our favorite Chinese seafood restaurants for the reunion dinner. Normally, this place is better than most, and there are few people dining there. The manager runs around an extra mile or two until his white dress shirt is plastered to his body with sweat, and we return now and then.

But on the eve of CNY the place was packed. I'll bet they had way more bodies in there than the fire code permits as they tried to make a killing on their big night. As a result, the food was slow in coming out, and the portions seemed smaller. While the health conscious few recommend eating until you are only 80% full, that won't fly with our party. Most of our group like to eat until they are 180% full. So we left with room to spare.

We took a walk outside to a replica of a Mississippi riverboat, complete with big red paddle wheel astern, which is permanently moored to the dock. In the past we had assumed it was a floating restaurant with karaoke rooms. Turns out it is a Tex-Mex restaurant, serving baby-back ribs, quesadillas, and fajitas (kind of like a Mexican popiah). On weekends a woman sings lounge music accompanied by a pianist. We just ordered ice cream - a lot of ice cream.

And then there came the big break with tradition. My brother-in-law, Ah Tong, ordered a chicken chop "fried like Kentucky." This was the first time in twelve years that I ever saw him eat Western food. In fact, I have seen him walk out of Chinese restaurants without eating because the food wasn't Chinese enough for his taste! And he liked it! There is a glimmer of hope that we might actually go back there sometime for a family meal.

The next day as we assembled for the annual round of family visits Tong was wearing a pair of jeans. I haven't seen him wear long pants since his wedding. And Ah Ma was also wearing a pair of jeans - another first!

I always thought that CNY was the same old same old every year. At least I had that impression after eleven go rounds. But even a very traditional family on a very traditional occasion can surprise you. I can't wait to see what happens next year!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Or maybe I wasn't wrong about SingPost

SingPost has announced that it will stop collecting and delivering mail on Saturdays, beginning in May. While the move is not terribly disruptive, it could be a sign of things to come. Will they soon cut back to a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule?

It would also help if their boxes were more accessible. I stumbled on this one in the Kaki Bukit area, largely hidden in the shrubbery. A team of commandos would have trouble posting a letter here!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

I was wrong about SingPost

Among the various Chinese New Year mailings looking for a piece of the consumer's buck, I found a nice five-fold mini-catalog printed on good quality stock. Entitled shop@post, "where great shopping begins," it claims to be "Ushering in the Lunar New Year with Great Buys!" The familiar Singapore Post logo is in the corner.

What are some of these great buys? There's two different models of electric steamboat pot, a Black & Decker cordless drill, a range of abalone gift sets, a variety of phones and walkie talkies, and a mini car fridge. There's even a 26" LCD/DVD combo, which I think is also a TV although it doesn't say. I can also go online for more selections.

I can place my order at any of 62 post offices island-wide, drop it in any post box, order online, or visit any SAM or SAMplus. SAM stands for self-service automated machine. I used to be able to buy stamps from them, but they no longer take small change and there is always a super long queue of people waiting to do all kinds of non-mail related things. I don't know what SAMplus does, though presumably it offers more than the regular SAM. Maybe it also sells stamps or shines shoes.

So my prediction that SingPost would shut down its mail service altogether is probably wrong. It needs the mail to deliver its catalog! So here's my revised prediction: SingPost will expand its retail offerings and soon I will be getting a shop@post catalog the size of the Yellow Pages.

The Straits Times reports today that SingPost's third-quarter profits jumped 20.6 per cent. Of that, mail revenue declined 1.2% while retail revenue increased by 4.1%. Only 4.1%? They need to be more aggressive in their marketing! I'm sure they will be.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

SingPost forges ahead

I stopped at the post office today to buy stamps. Miraculously, they had a few on hand. Probably not many, as they need to make room for their other inventory. The latest new products for sale there include irons (for clothes, not golf), hot water boilers, and Chinese New Year gift boxes of abalone, shark's fin soup, etc. This particular branch did not have a cafe, like most bookstores now have, but some of the branches do. I predicted this some time ago.

I've noticed that machines that used to let you weigh letters and purchase stamps no longer take coins. The list of functions performed at the post office continues to grow. You can renew your magazine subscription, pay insurance premiums, get a dog license, pay bills and fines, and do all kinds of non-mail related things. The mail business just gets in the way.

SingPost is hell bent on becoming a conglomerate, constantly looking for new revenue streams. Here's another prediction: One day - probably sooner than we think - they will give up delivering mail completely. You will have to use email or a delivery service to send a simple greeting card or letter.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Home again

We’re back home again, after a very pleasant 3½ weeks in the States. Our flight out of Newark was delayed when a passenger decided he didn’t want to go after all, and we had to wait for his bags to be unloaded from the plane. This is not what you want to hear two days after a Nigerian tried to blow up a plane over Detroit. Then another passenger became ill, medics were called and determined he shouldn’t fly, and his bags had to be removed. Of course, when you’re talking about 30 hours of travelling, this delay was no biggie. We finally arrived in time for New Year’s Eve, which we slept through, and several days of jet lag, which we had trouble sleeping through.

Whenever I return from a trip stateside I like to bring a little bit of Americana with me. This time it took the form of an espresso maker. Not the big machine that’s been taking over office pantries, but a little metal job that looks like an hourglass. I also brought back a couple of bricks of coffee and made some Cuban coffee. It didn’t taste quite like the stuff in Miami, though. You’re supposed to put the first few drops into a tiny metal pitcher with some sugar and whip it into a froth. I didn’t get any froth, perhaps because all I had to mix it in was a porcelain Chinese teacup. We drank it from tiny porcelain Japanese sake cups. They were slightly larger than the little plastic condiment cups you get on Calle Ocho (which look like the ones you squirt ketchup into at McDonald’s), and the experience was not at all authentic. I suspect I am the first and only person ever to sip cafe Cubano from a sake glass—man, it feels great to be a pioneer.