Saturday, 3 November 2012


Last Friday was a public holiday so the DFP (de facto partner in case you never caught what it stands for, see early frustrated entries about visas and work) and I packed our bags and caught the bus to Malacca in Malaysia. And so did everyone else in Singapore.

You may remember from my entry about Penang that it's twinned with Malacca for UNESCO purposes. They're very similar. Colonial ports with lots of pretty shophouses. Malacca has been spruced up while Penang seems, at times, surprised by tourism. Malacca on the other hand has embraced it enthusiastically.

In fact so enthusiastically that some people (including the woman who did the guided tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang) think they've gone too far.

She cited a waterwheel which the improvers added, initially claiming that Malacca used to have a waterwheel but then when pressed admitted that it never had done. The sign on it now says that similar waterwheels could have been found in similar places in the world in the past.

She was also very put out by the viewing tower, a sort of concrete flying saucer that climbs up a pole and by the monorail. But then, as any fan of 'The Simpsons' knows, any small town wanting to attract tourists gets a monorail.

"You know a town with money is a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it."

Says the monorail salesman before selling Springfield a monorail. A very funny episode. I recommend it.

We weren't as put out by the 'improvements' and as there isn't a great deal to do there perhaps they make sense. We caught the bus on Friday morning at 8am, arriving around 1pm and returned at 4.30pm the next day without feeling we'd missed anything. And while the waterwheel is a bit silly there's quite a funky atmosphere with lots of arty shops and arty graffiti, (the kind endorsed by the council) and the cleaned up river is pleasant to walk along.

We walked around the town and the Chinese graveyard, ate some tasty food, swam in the hotel pool and then it was time to go home.

On our only evening we went out to the Portuguese settlement to eat. There were, a very long time ago, Portuguese traders in Malacca. They left Catholicism, some church ruins and a few genes.

The settlement is just a small square with some restaurants in a suburb. Walking back from dinner we took a turning off the main road. As we walked along the low rise houses almost every one had an enormous cross either outside or on the wall you could see through the open window. Or a statue or Our Lady.

The bus coming back was a luxury bus! (I booked late) A business class bus with large seats which reclined and had mini TVs in the back. I watched 'Despicable Me' and 'How to train your dragon' both of which I heartily recommend.

I feel a bit bad that we can't take this kind of jaunt more often because I work on Sundays. Maybe I should look for a new job. But I am enjoying this one and its nearly the holidays. Two more weeks!!

Here are the pics:

You can see the offensive viewing tower on the left

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Second time around

It's been a while. Mum and my friend M*** have been asking why I haven't written. I'm not sure why. Partly that nothing very exciting has been happening, partly time slipping away and partly that we've had people visiting, which was nice. Also, I've been trying to prioritise finishing my play rather than pootling on the blog. Anyway, I'm back again to pootle.

We're into our second year here and I'm finally feeling much more settled and comfortable, almost at home. Some very good friends are leaving Singapore soon, which is sad, but the happy upside is that we've inherited their plants. At the moment I'm sitting on the balcony surrounded by lovely greenery and a breeze. How long will it take me to kill them? I have a very poor track record with plants.

So things are coming around for the second time and I understand them a little more. The Hungry Ghost has come and gone. He stretches his hungry fingers halfway through September into October. Out after 9pm he could eat up your soul. All those bonfires are to appease him. Last year I didn't know what all the burnings were about. This year I do. My students told me.

The festival of the moon with its mooncakes has come and gone. The temples opposite celebrating with wailing Chinese opera and by setting out enormous outdoor feasts. If there isn't room in front of the building they'll fill up a carpark or even block off a street. A canopy is erected and tens of neatly covered tables set out ready for the meal. Everyone arrives and eats and meanwhile, loudspeaker in hand, someone warbles excruciatingly  The upside of being in Singapore is that at 10 o'clock, on the dot, the wailing stops.

Second time around I'm getting a bit more canny about making the public holidays work for us. As there are so many religions co-existing here there are public holidays not only for Christmas day and Easter, but for Hari Raya Haji, for Deepavali, for Chinese New Year and of course for National Day.

I have just finished a flurry of booking flights. Prepare to feel jealous.

Hari Raya Haji (next Friday) - Malacca in Mayasia. Four hours by bus. One night away. Because we can. Twinned with Penang, a UNESCO site, more aggressively restored, but pretty shop-houses and Portuguese architecture. Ahhh. Old.

New year - Hanoi (Vietnam's old communist capital where Hemingway lounged  in post French colonial splendour and wrote) and Halong Bay or 'dragon descending bay' (you've seen it on calenders)  superbly beautiful, UNESCO protected.

Chinese New Year - Cambodia - Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to see Ankor Wat and the other wat.

March half term - Japan - skiing in Niseko and an overnight in Tokyo.

But before any of those the biggie - the reason I came to Singapore: Burma. Have I told you this story already? I'm sure I must have. Maybe not.

My grandmother was born and brought up in Burma during the Colonial occupation which started in the mid 1800's. Her father was an English schoolteacher. Colonization was not great for the Burmese. While, arguably, some colonized countries benefited from the British and French legal and educational systems and road building abilities, Burma didn't take to it so well.

The British behaved particularly shamefully during WWII abandoning Burma to Japanese invasion as soon as the first planes arrived. The upside was that Burma's national hero, Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, had formed an alliance with them to achieve independence from the colonial yoke. It became quickly apparent the Japanese were no better than the British and at the end of the war he negotiated hard with the Allies and won Burma it's independence once more.

He was assassinated less than a year into independence and the Junta, a nasty group of Generals, took over and ran the country which had been 'the rice bowl of Asia' into the ground with a weird socialism, corruption and greed.

I never knew my grandmother. She died when I was a few months old. In fact I never knew either of my grandmothers. The other died when my father was in his early twenties. I've always felt very connected to them both. My father's mother was an actress and my mother's mother was a writer and a teacher. All the things I've ended up doing.

Growing up I read her books about her childhood in Burma and always wanted to go there. When I was old enough to make the decision I decided not to go while Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Then, as she was released, as the seismic changes that are still going on there now started, the DFP called from a conference in Florida and wondered how I'd feel about living in Singapore for a couple of years.

My parents and aunt and uncle are arriving in a months time. In a months time my lifelong ambition is going to be realised. The house she lived in is still standing. We'll visit it as part of the (eye wateringly expensive) tour we've had tailor made for us.

I am so excited. I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am. This is why I came.

And in the meantime life is good. I'm really enjoying teaching. I am finding time to write, though never enough. I've acclimatised to the temperature. I've started cycling to work. Cycling  around a place always makes me feel like me. While I still don't love Singapore, we are definitely on much better terms.

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Gardens by the Bay

The Outlaws are still in town. Yesterday we took them for lunch at Pollen and then into the greenhouses at the Gardens by the Bay. The Flower dome is a bit mah, with exciting plants unusual to Singapore! Like Geraniums! The Cloud Forest is more exciting with walkways and a waterfall. It's the first time I've ever been in a green house with lifts and escalators. So Singapore. Here are the pics....

Malaysia - Penang and Langkawi

Another holiday. I know. Sickening isn't it? Just back from Bali and off again to Malaysia. Two reasons, one - it's half term, two - the outlaws (the DFP's family) are in town.

Penang and Langkawi are both islands off the north-west of Malaysia. Penang is famous for its old buildings and delicious food and Langkawi as the pearl of the tropics.

In Langkawi we stayed in a wooden villa on the tropical cliff side overlooking the sea. There were two very friendly cats, a mother and her little black kitten. By our final day there I had fed them enough milk and cheese slices for them to grace my lap. They curled up there like fury yin and yang. It made me very happy.

We hired a boat for a day to snorkel, swim in a mountain lake and eat an amazing barbeque lunch on a beach. Proper tropical island paradise beach stuff.

The mountain lake. So deep the DFP was able to dive into it to his hearts content. 
One of the social bi-products of 9/11 has been that Arab holiday makers have found themselves less welcome visitors to some countries. They're given lots of grief at passport control and are travelling in greater numbers to Langkawi. The owners of the place we were staying told us they vet their guests and tell Arab enquirers that they're fully booked, which I found disquieting.

Their reason was that people felt uncomfortable seeing be-burka-ed women sitting on the balcony swathed entirely in black. I don't agree with discrimination but did feel a bit odd while trying to struggle discreetly in or out of a swimming costume on a beach and being passed by a woman dressed from head to toe in voluminous black with only eyes and hands visible. Her husband next to her in shorts. I would suddenly feel very self concious and a bit of a tart.   

You may remember how much I loved crumbly, old Mumbai. I miss old in shiny, new Singapore. I am constantly bewailing the bulldozers knocking down anything with age and character to make way for yet another condo. This happens a lot at the moment in Geylang. There's a big push to build lots of new apartments and it feels as though 80% of them are being built around the corner from our flat.

Penang satisfied my appetite for old and crumbly. It's a UNESCO heritage site, twinned with Malacca. Malacca is also in Malaysia but at the bottom end only two hours by bus from Singapore. 

In the mid eighteenth century Captain Francis Light, under the auspicious of the all prevalent East India Company, leased Penang beginning several centuries of British involvement. The British legacy is still everywhere, literally underfoot. You see Staffordshire tiles again and again, ironwork from Glasgow and in amongst the Chinese shop-houses find colonial grandeur rotting away, though not rotting at the speed and extent that it does in Mumbai.

We stayed in a wonderful heritage hotel right in the centre of Chinatown, The Campbell House Hotel, recently refurbished by an extremely on the ball expat couple. They've got every detail right. It's quirky and tasteful, comfortable and beautiful. There are those lovely little details which make all the difference. In the fridge in every room instead of overpriced snacks you find a bottle of complimentary iced lemon tea. The shower is amazing. So is the coffee machine. When we arrived one of the owners, Nadya, was there to meet us, tell us where to park, the best places to eat in the area and what to see the next day. Very, very impressive.

Note the Staffordshire tiles!

We wandered around looking at old buildings and eating whenever we had the appetite to. Penang is famous for its food and deservedly so. One of the dishes it claims as its own is char kway teow. This fried dish of thick, flat rice noodles and seafood is common in Singapore too, but Malaysians swear you can only get the real deal in Penang. Very tasty.

My favourite trip was to the Cheong Fatt Zhe Mansion. Cheong Fatt Zhe left China at sixteen with only the clothes on his back and, of course for this to be a story worth telling, became massively wealthy. He had a finger in every pie: railway pie, bank pie, building pie, British and Dutch pie. So of course he needed a house to match. Well, he needed lots of houses to match and he built one of them in Penang. 

The guided tour was led by one of the team of architects who had bought the house in 1990. In his will Cheong Fatt Zhe said that no one could inherit from his estate until after his last son died. He had eight wives and fathered his last child at 74. He died in 1916 and his last son didn't die until 1989.

By the time he died every single inch of the house had been let out to pay for its upkeep. The grand entrance hall was full of cooking stoves; motor bikes drove in and out; washing lines were strung from the fine wooden carved screens; someone was running a hairdressing salon and hundreds of families were living there. They all had to be paid off before the renovations could begin. It's well worth a visit. The house and it's history are as fascinating as he clearly was.

So please add Penang and Langkawi to your list of places to visit. Here are some more pictures to whet your appetite for travel....