30 March 2009

Singapore Spring - Day 1



An old, desolate station closely surrounded by grey concrete walls of soviet charm which look like they had seen a long period of armed conflict. Only two railway tracks, the two short platforms not being more than 20 metres from one side to the other and the claustrophobically low ceiling (four metres) hides any view of the outside world that could give an indication of my whereabouts. No signs whatsoever, no ads, no loudspeakers, no announcement in the train. Am I really already in Singapore? Somehow I have imagined a more glorious welcome. Or is this not the terminus yet? Other people seem similarly confused and after several minutes, poke their heads out, shout questions to their travel companions which they usually answer with big eyes, a frown and a shrug. Some poke their head out in search for a non-existent clue or even send a family member running down the platform on a blitz reconaissance mission. It's all kind of amusing and I'm part of it. Slowly and hesitantly, people get out of the train and walk towards the main building. Right, I must already be in Singapore as we had already passed border control, so even if this is not the terminus, I'm sure I can catch a bus or MRT to the city centre. No problem, it's early in the morning and I'm not in hurry. The station hall turns out to be tiny and apart from a money exchanger, a cafe and a KMT ticket office there is nothing: no map, no leaflets, no big sign at least in there indicating the name of the station (I even tried it outside!). Hm. I decide to ask the man at the ticket office, as he seems to be the opposite of busy, having no queue, "Is this Singapore? Am I in Singapore?" I slightly feel like an idiot but defiant all the same. I'm sure they get loads of clowns wondering the same thing every day. I ask for a map, they don't have any. I ask for the MRT link, there is none. It seems the taxi is the only way into town, there is a long queue confirming it and like the bus, it is not an option, as I would first need to get money. I already dreaded his answer when I asked for the location of the cash machine. There is none. "What the fuck?! Is this really Singapore, financial hub of Southeast Asia???", I think by myself. "Where CAN I find a cash machine?" - "Follow green building, follow green building!" Great. With a bulging backpack, a frontback and a plastic bag, I start to walk towards what looks like the green building and the CBD. One cannot be sure and not too many people are around, so I ask a jolly middle-aged Singaporean mixed couple who look like they lived in the area to confirm if this really is the way to the city centre and cash machines. They confirmed and typically Asian, give me a detailed description of how to get there. I tell them about the weird station. They throw their heads back and laugh, synchronically exclaiming, "It's KMT [the Malay national train company], they don't care!" - "Do a lot of people like me ask you if this is indeed Singapore?" - "All the time!" The first ATM was three large blocks away. I turn into a major street and suddenly I am surrounded by new skyscrapers made of glass, cafes, business people and broad avenues. Oookay, this is Singapore alright! I am in Tanjung Pagar which finally has a MRT, easy enough to locate: Just walk against the unbroken (!) stream of hundreds of smartly-dressed people who are on their way to work. I feel like a wrong-way driver/Geisterfahrer boxing my way through the masses with all my stuff, being the ONLY person actually trying to get INTO that particular station at morning rush hour! Never seen anything like that! I ask for a MRT map at the counter and the woman asks me where I want to go. I say, "I don't know" and am enjoying it. I manage to find my Rough Guide, pick the nearest and cheapest hostel and hail a cab, sth you won't ever have problem finding. Singapore has 24 000 cabs, that makes about 202 per citizen, one of the main reasons probably being that buying your own car requires you to purchase a government license to do so and this license is sometimes even more expensive than the car itself! Then again, you want to keep traffic and pollution low in such a small place. Efficient public transport takes care of the rest.

My hostel is on the top 4th and 5th floors, on top of a small food court (practical!), the entrance behind the kitchen. According to the Rough Guide, "rumours of its demise have been around for years". No shit man, the building, next to two 3 star hotels, looks like it was scheduled to be taken down ten years ago but the dynamite crew forgot to show up. Room's bare and spartanic but clean. The bathroom is all moldy (I am not exaggerating!), water is constantly trickling from nowhere and the pipes are all rusty. However, the hostel is one of the cheapest to be found in expensive Singapore and as long the place is clean, safe and people are nice, I am satisfied. When I come down to reception later, the Chinese owner of the place is on the phone, talking a mix between fluent English, Chinese and spicing it over with the quint-essentially Malaysian/Singaporean -lah. It's quite amusing. He's really courteous, asks where I am from and where I want to go today. He gives me loads of useful compact information without being pushy, the perfect receptionist. Basically, he gave me exactly the same route I had in mind after I had studied my Guide more closely in my room.

Eventually, I set out on a beautiful "spring" day, sunny and warm with a pleasant breeze from the sea. All important museums and places I wanted to see were within walking distance. Like before, my gaze wanders around the pavement, the street, the traffic islands, the building entrances for a tiny trace of litter but after 15 minutes, I still haven't found any! I have never seen such a clean city in my life! An amazement (and obsession!) that is going to follow me the next one and a half days. The high rise buildings, the tidyness, the nice climate, I was fascinated and awed as a first time visitor - probably exactly the desired reaction of the government. A Singaporean friend finds it funny that outsiders always get excited about the law not to litter, he says that for them it is absolutely normal. From when they are little children, they are being taught to be tidy. The few and reckless who do ignore the law get fined S$ 1000/2000/5000, depending on whether its their first, second or third conviction - or get subjected to corrective work order (cleaning up streets) to get shamed by the public. If you get caught dumping or disposing you pay S$ 50 000-100 000 or risk jail. Jaywalking costs you S$ 500-2000 or up to six months imprisonment for repeat offenders (I can't believe that this is actually enforced very much but then again I did not see a lot of people "committing" it). I guess that's why they call it "a fine city", what a fine city indeed!

Moving on, I accidentally stepped into the Peranakan Museum on my way to the Asian Civilisations Museum. Having no distinct idea who or what peranakan is nor why it deserves a devoted museum (despite classes on Southeast Asian Ethnography and a seminar in Oxford on Singaporean History), it had not really been an item on my list. Luckily, I popped in out of curiosity! I greatly enjoyed the whole exhibition and in the end decided to stay much longer because it is just so charming, rich and so nicely done! I really do recommend it to anyone coming to Singapore! Let me start from the beginning!

For a brief and to-the-point description of the term peranakan, the museum's own explanation is probably best!

A large part of the exhibition is devoted to a typically Chinese-Peranakan 12-day wedding, of which I took a few notes:
Day 1: Ki Beli: "Mounting of the Horse" (not what you think!). Procession with gongs, lanterns and umbrella (bearers). The groom is sent by his father to the bride. At the same time, a giving away ceremony is held in which the bride is veiled by both her parents. Usually, the veil is made of black netting, as it is sad that she leaves.
Day 3: Soja Tiga Hari: The bride pays respect to the groom's deities and ancestors in his house.
Day 5: Chia Siah: Takes place in the bride's house. Everyone has to say four-lined phrases in Baba Malay (the hybrid peranakan "dialect", if you will) to make the bride smile and the groom has to treat a table for every time she does!
Day 12: Duabelas Hari: Women from both families gather at the groom's family house to check if the bride is a virgin. Nasi Lemak (a special dish) is sent from the groom to the bride's family if it is confirmed.

Other important, undated parts (probably because they are scheduled at an auspicious day at an auspicious time as defined by an astrologer) of the wedding include:

Chin Mian Hair Combing Ceremony: Sth involving a bamboo plate and a red rice mat (?) as well as a "fate book" around which people have to walk. It takes place on the eve before the wedding and a white dress is worn until the third day when the marriage is consummated. Here, I found this better explanation on the web (interestingly, the museum only speaks of three symbolic strokes, if anyone's got an explanation, you're welcome to post it!):

Both the bride and the groom perform a hair-combing ceremony the night before the wedding, symbolizing the entrance into adulthood. The bride should perform the hair-combing under the gaze of the moon to bring her children. Both should comb their hair four times, each stroke bringing good luck. The first symbolizes the unity of the couple from the beginning of the marriage to the end, the second brings harmony and faithfulness into old age, the third brings lots of children and grandchildren, and the fourth stroke brings wealth and a long-lasting marriage.

Also very important, is the exchange of wedding gifts between the two families before the actual wedding. This gives them the opportunity to get to know each other (or to appraise each other...).

This is a picture of a typical wedding chamber: A male page boy (kuya) is picked to roll around three times in the bed while he is encouraged by women of the family. This is supposed to bring fertility to the couple. They also leave some sweets in the chamber. The bride and groom would later have their first meal together, the unveiling takes place and this is traditionally the first time they "set eyes on each other".

Apart from the relatively large space dedicated to the wedding, there is all kinds of stuff of more recent vintage Singapore memorabilia to be found. Among them, the lawyer's wig of Ms Kwa Geok Choo, the first Asian woman to graduate from Cambridge University. She was later one of the founders and partners of the Lee&Lee law firm upon her return to Singapore. Her husband was Lee Kuan Yew (to become Singapore's first prime minister) and her son is the third and current prime minister. What a family!

I eventually made it to the Asian Civilisations Museum but only rushed through, making a mental note to return again next time. The ACM is sth like the ASEAN version of the British Museum (I hate to make comparisons to Western examples but it illustrates it well). I learned loads of interesting facts about rice - its significance and role in society and cultural manifestations thereof. For example, when Asians meet, it is common to ask "Hi, have you eaten yet?" as a form of greeting (actually, my Filipino relatives like to do that a lot). This apparently traces back to times of food shortages and rationing in Asia. Other fascinating stuff for which I had too little time were:

- Malay marriage traditions: The parents of the bride each have to save up for a precious wedding gift from the time she is born, namely a particular gown and a bed sheet. That is because it has to be special, beautiful design and fabric for such an important day and hence expensive. Even if the family is not that well off, they will at least try to put aside a little bit for that over the years as it is a great embarassment if you can't afford them or have to borrow money for the occasion.

- Singapore river: It used to be a dump because of all the heavy trade but was subject to an ambitious major clean-up operation 1977-1987 and henceforth been very clean. They seriously should send some specialists to Manila to clean up Pasig River where I wouldn't even swim in with a hazmat suit!

- A video about a Vietnamese town that lives from and is known for producing and exporting all kinds of stuff made of clay (vases, statues, crockery in all shapes and sizes). Fascinating to watch them do that (quite some swift manual work). Does anyone by any chance know the place?

- A huge Gamelan orchestra arrangement (I wish I had had the chance to attend any cultural performances)

- Raffles Landing Site: Everything is named after Raffles, the guy who "discovered" Singapore, starting with the spot he stepped off the ship. Today, loads of people meet up for some after work drinks in one of the many bars and restaurants along the quay. Some tourist enjoy their (expensive) view. Having watched the sun set on a (free) bench at the riverbank, I went for the more affordable deal at a back street. Authentic Indonesian cuisine (as far as I can tell), place owned by an Indonesian woman. While I am eating my dinner, I observe some suspicious activities in the hair/beauty salon opposite: It had "officially" closed ten minutes earlier when I had walked into the restaurant, the ground level was all dark, the plate sliding door only pulled down half way, dim light could be seen in the two floors above and right outside were two beautiful tall girls with the longest legs I have ever seen joking with each other and sometimes even hugging each other, all made up and dressed up, ducking in and out of the shop, talking to some unseen person inside (their boss?)... I finish and decide to slowly stroll back to the hostel. I reach a junction. To the left, an alley which looks like an insider place for Chinese to go out with loads of neon lights, mostly red or pink and loud music. Briefly, I am tempted to walk through just to randomply explore. I was tired however, so I decided to turn right, towards my hostel. I was later told that I had nearly walked into the red light district (I seem to find these places intuitively, be it in Vienna or in Geneva).

- Past the Raffles Hotel (the place where you are told to go for your Singapore Sling even if it may be S$ 20) into the Raffles Plaza (probably walking on Raffles Avenue). Chinese New Year is still in high season, what with an indoor market selling traditional stuff (lampions, all kinds of stuff made of paper, character scrolls, lampions, jade beads, lampions, horoscope scrolls, paintings, lampions...) and some retail shops that with fairy lampions as decoration, some even offering Chinese New Year sales.

- For the way back to the hostel, I decide to take the MRT for the first time, fun! There are no paper tickets, just "oyster cards", even for single journeys! Great strategy to keep the transport system clean! Once you arrive at your destination, you can return the card to the machine and get your deposit of S$ 1 back. Riding the MRT is an experience in itself. Not a single piece of litter in the station, not even a ripped paper, no-one drinking, no-one eating. With a smug sigh I think back of the dump that London Transport is in comparison. The trains themselves looked so sterile, spacious and well-lit, you could actually do surgery in there, seriously! They really look and smell as if straight out of the manufacturer's garage. Even the A/C is just perfect, not too hot, not too cold. I wonder if they have in-built air ionisers too. Amazing stuff!

18 March 2009

Nächster Halt/Next Stop: Vienna

It's been so long since I've blogged that I probably should apologise to my faithful readers literally following from around the globe! It's also been ages since I've last visited Vienna (June 2008!) so that I'm actually enjoying my stay, probably for the first time really.

In actual terms, I'm referring to things like the joys of efficient public transport (despite major construction work on key stations) and the beauty of riding on a light cutting edge green train (separated recycling bins, probably efficient energy consumption) of solid craftsmanship where you don't even feel or hear it moving. Where the seats still look as clean and new as ever, even after maybe ten years of use because no-one thinks of putting their feet on them (or they think about it but don't do it). Or the freedom to leave my bag on the bench in the station (with my money in it) while waiting for the train to throw something into the bin two metres away. In London you'd probably a) have people look at you with suspicion and cause an evacuation of the whole station or b) have it stolen by the time you come back five seconds later.

It is also refreshing to hear Austrian German again, even though it always first strikes me as a bit odd after being exposed to English for so long. Imagine a taster taking a neutralising sniff of coffee in between to smell the next test item with a "fresh nose". People "gengan zum Oazt" (high German: gehen zum Arzt = go to the doctor) because they are "schasaugat" (lit. fart-sighted, sic!). If Austrian doctors were as "outspoken" (Victorian euphemism for outright rude) as their NHS counterparts, they'd probably tell their patients to "rutsch mir doch den Buckel runter!" (Slide down my hunchback! = Get lost because I don't care!)

Other than that Vienna's charm on me can be attributed to the general absence of alcoholics, teenage amateur gangsters cum mothers, Asian scumbags, British scumbags, hotpants, petty criminals, brickhouses, wheat flour, urban pollution and the average SOAS student. I also appreciate the daily fully operational underground system of the Wiener Linien. London currently resembles a professional athlete with multiple organ failure, as with three or more lines daily or bi-daily suspended. And for this you pay £1000/£650 a year for 408 km!!! Austria charges 400€ (101€ for students domiciled in Vienna) a year for 70km. The system is well-maintained and I'd say 98% reliable!

London as a city is going South now on several fronts which is a pity really. Speaking of Olympics, let's just hope that 2012 brings in more money than it costs, else I fear revolt. By that time, I have hopefully left the gravitational orbit of London in lightspeed in order to shoot for the moon. It is likely I will simmer somewhere under the Asian sun with the noble (?) pretext of contributing to development while actually knowlingly or unknowingly making it worse.

Kaiserschmarrn Blues (after Kaisermühlen Blues, a TV series revolving around the tenants of a council estate in a particular part in Vienna which happens to surround the UN):
I remember the time I tried to explain to an English person what a Kaiserschmarrn is. "It is like a pancake except once it is set, you destroy it!" - "Why???" - "Just so." That woman shook her head in disbelief at such an obviously mindless idea. I wonder what she'd say if I try to explain why people in Austria eat Scheiterhaufen (funeral pyre or stake in English) or Mohr im Hemd (Moor in shirt). Then again, eating "Spotted Dick" does not exactly give them any highground.

Being back in Austria means I can take my pick of precious local stuff, such as the self-made Kaiserschmarrn by Martina's mum which we devoured with some (less local) fairtrade & organic: Umbu marmelade, Banana-Passion Fruit marmelade (both from development shops in Vienna) and some pickled samples of self-imported Umbu compote (the Umbu fruit has an intriguing taste similar to figs!). The most awesome part about this is that Martina used to do an internship with the cooperative in Brazil that produces them and has seen the different stages of production and work units in the region! It must be so weird and such a luxury at the same time to see something in the shelves and to know exactly where it comes from!

By the way, I recently saw a most interesting and enlightening documentary about coffee. It's called "Black Gold" and follows an Ethiopian passionate coffee trader around his work in the country and abroad to get a fair deal for his cooperative. Check out the trailer on the vibrant official website here (try out the coffee calculator!). This documentary sparked my idea to actually go down there and "follow the trail of coffee", in my opinion an excellent way of combining my passion for coffee with my need to learn more about global trade in primary goods. While people know that I'm ultimately an Asia person, I think it is important to see at least one African country - on a Development Studies agenda, I've been to Africa before as a child - and to stay open-minded and aware of areas - thematically, regionally - that are (not yet!) of equal level of interest to you for you never know what will happen in the future.



Staying on the culinary side of things, I recently was outraged at the sad news that some idiot sold a "Fritzl Schnitz'l" as locals, forced by economic reasons into prostituting themselves for little profit out of "Austria's case of a century", set up tents in front of the court house to entertain the national and international press siege on the provincial capital Sankt Pölten. Luckily, the mayor had more scruples and sense than this greedy exception of a man and after a word to the restaurant owner the sickening dish was off the menu again four hours later, even though I have a feeling that some shameful tabloid reporters (let's not call them journalists) are sorry that they now have to resort to the mayor's wine tasting evening for the press to celebrate St Pölten's 850th anniversary and in an effort to make the region remembered not by some isolated albeit tragic incident but by what it's actually more known for nationally, quality white wine. Thank you Guardian for publishing an ethical and balanced coverage there!

Apart from this episode, I am amazed and happy to have tasted so many delicious things during my stay: My grandparent's Filipino Sinigang na Baboy (to die for!), Vietnamese grilled duck with Nancy, Vanillekipferl (kept by my mum ever since Christmas when they are usually baked!), cooking by five elements by my sister Helga and also Martina's mum (seems to be a spreading trend now in Austria), strawberry tiramisu with Martina and the Omega 3 spree with Kat (Salmon Teriyaki and Salmon Maki) and my mum (Salmon Maki). Tomorrow, I'll also eat Bagel with Rose, another Viennese studying at SOAS. Apparently, the Bagel was invented in Vienna by a Jewish baker who fashioned them after stir-ups (
Bügel).