Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Singapore Books: Return to a Sexy Island

I was pretty enthused when I heard that Neil Humphreys had a sexy new book. I read his first three books about Singapore (reviews here, here, and here!!) and enjoyed them for the most part. But his first three books were a little dated, and sometimes covered places that are no longer around. In Return to a Sexy Island, he documented his return to Singapore and his quest to only visit places that were new or had been totally revamped recently. It was the perfect thing to read just before my trip back.
Of his four Singapore books, I had the most fun reading this one. Reading it was like a trip back through time (or a trip through my old blog posts). He wrote about Fusionopolis, where Bryan used to work! He wrote about Pinnacle@Duxton, which I used to see from Duke-NUS every day. He went to Ubin, one of our favorite places in Singapore. He ranted about Bukit Brown's plight far more eloquently than I have. He visited Marina Barrage and HortPark and Henderson Waves and Labrador Park. It was so fun to turn page after page thinking "I've been there!" or "I LOVE THAT PLACE!" or "I once fell down those very same stairs!!" Good stuff.

My only criticisms of this book also held for the last three: if you haven't stayed in Singapore for an extended period of time, a lot of his jokes and references are likely to go over your head. I've also criticized his negativity in previous books, but it was much more under control in this one (for real though, don't tell Humphreys if you like to gamble. He will judge you harshly). Overall, he once again wrote a book full of laughs and nostalgia for anyone who's spent time in Singapore.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Loving Singapore

When you love a place and leave it, you romanticize it while you're gone. While you were there, you always thought that the food from that vegetarian place was really great, but now that you've been gone a while you're starting to wonder if that was possibly the best food you've ever eaten in your life. The neighborhood you lived in for three years was just okay when you lived in it, but now you can't even think of it without a wave of nostalgia.

But to love Singapore is to love a place that's constantly changing. That was never more obvious to me than on my recent trip back. I returned, eager to see those things I'd been reminiscing about since I left. Only 11 months later, I figured not too much could've changed. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Our neighborhood was almost unrecognizable to me. When Bryan and I moved there four years ago, there was one mall - a slightly outdated (by S'pore standards) place called IMM. By the time we moved away three years later, a fancy new mall had opened up less than a half mile away from IMM. JCube is shiny, new, and crowded. So you can imagine my surprise when I stood on the Jurong East MRT platform last week and saw...ANOTHER mall. Jem is brand spanking new, huge, and seems to have sprouted up from nowhere. From the MRT platform, you can see IMM, Jem, and JCube all at the same time. I don't understand the need for so many malls, but I miss how quiet our neighborhood used to be. It will only get more bustling with the completion of the massive Ng Teng Fong General Hospital in 2014.
Jem - image from http://www.jem.sg

The transformation of our neighborhood was a surprise, but there was a way worse one in store for me. When I found out I was going back to Singapore, one of the first things I said to Bryan was, "I CAN'T WAIT TO EAT NTU FOOD!!!" Now, you might be surprised that, in a country renowned for its cuisine, I was pumped to get my hands on some college cafeteria food. But I have no shame. NTU's canteen B is set up like a regular Singapore hawker center, with an added bonus - the cost of the food is subsidized by the university, so you can get lunch for SG$2. No joke. In addition, it has a vegetarian stall that literally has my favorite food in all of Singapore. It's amazing. They have superb mock meat dishes, and they make this orange spicy chickpea gravy type stuff that's my favorite thing I ate in Singapore. I've never seen it anywhere else, and my Singaporean friends tell me it's an old-fashioned dish that isn't around much anymore. I planned to eat a bucket of it when I got back.

My first day, I ventured to Canteen B, hot, jet-lagged, and ravenously hungry. I was greeted with this sight:
Heartbreak

I'm completely serious when I say that I almost cried. Jet-lag makes me fragile. All the stalls were closed, and by that time I was so hungry that I was starting to worry about fainting. After dejectedly staring at the closed food stall for about 5 minutes, I went to the nearest open cafe, which I'd never been  to before. It was American-style. Their only vegetarian option was pizza. For my first meal back in Asia, I had a pizza and a Coke (in Pitchstop's defense, the pizza was delicious).

Confident that the canteen was just closed for school holidays, I returned a few days later. It was still closed. I asked around and found out....Canteen B is closed because it's being remodeled. REALLY remodeled, and it's rumored that the same stalls may not return. The plan is to turn it into more of a food court than a hawker center, thus further homogenizing the food options on campus. All this despite the fact that the same place was just remodeled in 2009.
Totally fine just the way it is

It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it represents one of the things that I find really frustrating about Singapore. Change isn't always bad - Singapore has made tons of positive steps over the last few decades, obviously. But so often a perfectly good thing is shut down to make way for something "better." Often the results are, to me, less appealing than the original. Old-fashioned hawker centers are losing a lot of their charm as they're converted into more modern, air-conditioned food courts that look like something you could find in a mall in any American suburb. Bukit Brown Cemetery, a beautiful tribute to local history, is being partially destroyed to become a housing estate (yes, I've complained about this for two posts in a row now). Plans are now under way to disrupt the Central Nature Reserves, the only remaining safe haven for much of Singapore's wildlife, to put it yet another MRT line.

Loving Singapore means that at any time, you could show up to find your treasured place gone, or worse...turned into another mall.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Chinese Heritage Center

I spent a lot of time at Nanyang Technological University when I was in Singapore. When I was employed by NTU, it was our base of operations for monkey research. So I spent hours slaving away in the lab in the Humanities and Social Sciences building. And every time I went there, I admired the adjacent Chinese Heritage Center and thought, "I really ought to go in there sometime." And I never did. So when I went back recently, I dedicated an hour to checking it out.

The outside of the place is decidedly impressive. There's nothing discreet about it. It really stands out from the rest of the more homogenous campus buildings.
Why didn't I visit sooner?!

The CHC was founded in 1995, and serves as a library, research center, and museum. The best part is that admission to the museum is free. You just have to be willing to haul yourself all the way over to the extreme west side of the island to get there!

As soon as I walked into the lobby, after noting the impressive interior architecture, I noticed something that really amused me. China is kind of known for copyright infringement (think of all those Chinese knockoffs, like Gocci or Addidas), so I found it funny when the first thing I saw upon crossing the threshold of the museum was the illegal usage of a copyrighted photo. Someone had made a cute little zongzi, or rice dumpling, with a face. But if you look closely at the eyes, you can see the watermark that indicates that the image of the face is copyrighted and should have been purchased for use. Pretty silly.
Check out the words on the left eye

Anyway, the interior of the building was impressive enough to tear me away from the copyright-infringing dumpling in only a few seconds. From the lobby, you can see straight up to the third floor.
Not a bad view!

When I was there, there were two main exhibitions. The Nantah Pictorial Exhibition opened in 2000, and covers the history of Nantah University, which existed from 1956 to 1980. During its short lifespan, it was the only Chinese-language university outside of mainland China. In 1980 Nantah University merged with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, which went on to become one of the top universities in Asia. In 1981, NTU opened on the former grounds of Nantah University. The exhibition covers a lot of this history, and includes 130 photographs from the time period. Although it wasn't all that long ago, the photographs kind of seemed like ancient history to me. They're a strong reminder of how far Singapore has come in such as short time. The artifacts were pretty neat too.

The most interesting set of artifacts included original roof tiles from Nantah University and a replica of Nantah Arch, which once marked the entrance to Nantah University. Apparently the original arch still stands at Jurong West Ave 93, and there is a replica in Yunnan Garden (opposite the CHC) at NTU. I've seen the replica before, but didn't understand its significance until visiting the exhibition.
Artifacts are a rare commodity in rapidly-evolving S'pore!

Before moving on to the next exhibition, I poked out onto the second floor balcony, which had a great view of the HSS building where I'd worked.
It's way prettier from the outside than from inside a stuffy office!

From the other side, there was a lovely view of Yunnan Garden.
Luckily the haze wasn't so bad that day!

The other exhibition was called "Chinese More or Less," and focused on the various, heterogeneous identities of mainland Chinese people, and how those identities were maintained abroad. I found this exhibit really fascinating. I've heard a lot of talk in Singapore about what it really means to be "Singaporean." National identity seems tricky when there's such a hodgepodge of cultures existing together in a small place that's always changing. But I haven't given much thought about Chinese Singaporeans and how they identify as Chinese, and how they're "Chinese-ness" differs from that of mainland Chinese, Chinese Americans, or Chinese people living in the UK, or Thailand, or Vietnam. This exhibit covered those issues around the world and across time.

There are seven galleries, and each one has a different focus. Throughout was a discussion of what it meant to be Chinese while away from China, and how cultural identities were maintained and transformed in new locations. The galleries focused on questions like "How Chinese am I?" and "What does it mean to be Chinese?"

One gallery focused on outsider perceptions of Chinese people. It was interesting to see racist interpretations of Chinese just around the corner from displays of cultural pride. The most intriguing image was an American caricature from the 1800's, depicting a greedy Chinese merchant. It was a commentary on the Chinese monopolization of trade goods production. I have thought of Chinese production as something that has only recently started to bother Americans, and was surprised to see that it was a point of contention 200 years ago.
Racism at its weirdest

The history of Chinese abroad created some strange juxtapositions - the workers at labor camps were just around the corner from the fancy colonial family.
Sidenote: Wax colonial family made me think that
CHC might make a good setting for a horror movie
about wax figures coming to life.

I poked around the CHC until about 10 minutes past closing time, when there were still no signs of the place shutting down. I went up to the third floor, which I don't recommend, since I don't think I was supposed to be there. But I was happy to see that there were lots of people around, taking in the exhibits, shopping in the gift shop, and taking pictures. It's good to see that a place like CHC generates some interest.

I think the CHC is a great way to preserve some of the history of Chinese people in Singapore and abroad, but I think more efforts should be made to protect actual local historical sites. The CHC has a short history - it's only 18 years old. Places like Bukit Brown have a long, rich cultural history but are not being afforded the proper respect, as historical preservation takes a backseat to constant "progress."

Saturday, July 6, 2013

In a Haze

As it turned out, I couldn't have picked a worse time to return to the Little Red Dot.

Every year there's a haze situation. It results from bad agricultural practices in neighboring Sumatra. Palm oil companies use illegal slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for more oil palm plantations. These plantations have been in the news before, because they replace diverse rainforest habitats with monotonous palm trees that support almost no wildlife. As such, they're devastating to already endangered species such as Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, lar gibbons, and many, many more.

However, this year was unlike any other. At first the haze wasn't anything that I hadn't seen in the years that I'd lived there. It was no worse than when I blogged about it in 2010. But that gradually changed. Over the next two to three days, the visibility got worse and worse as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) skyrocketed. Soon the news was covering only haze-related issues. The PSI was always on the corner of the TV screen. Then the news reported that the PSI was the highest that it had ever been, shattering the  record of 226 set during the Asian Haze Incident of 1997.
The stadium on Pioneer Road, through the haze
Well, at least I won't get a sunburn...

The government was advising people to wear heavy-duty N95 masks to cope with the unhealthy amounts of pollution. People were freaking out and stockpiling the masks, creating artificial shortages. When I tried to get one, the stores I went to were sold out. Lines were over an hour long at the one store I found that still had them. I opted to continue wearing my floppy, ineffective surgical mask instead.
Nothing says style like sweating through your surgical mask

While Singaporeans struggled to cope with the haze, the Singaporean government was in constant contact with the Indonesian government, offering assistance, and I'm sure, putting on some pressure for them to get the situation under control on the quick. Indonesian officials did not react well to this, and one accused Singapore of "acting like a child." The relationship between the two governments seemed a little strained, which, as a foreigner abroad, made me a little nervous.

But I was more nervous about the fact that I was starting to feel the effects of the haze on my health. I was staying on the fourth floor of an apartment building, and all week I'd been easily hustling up the four flights of stairs. On the day that the PSI shot above 400 for the first time, I found myself stopping to wheeze on the second floor landing.
From http://app2.nea.gov.sg/anti-pollution-radiation-protection/air-pollution/psi/psi-readings-over-the-last-24-hours

One of the strangest things about the whole situation was seeing nearly deserted places that were typically bustling with activity. I went to meet some friends for dinner at Clarke Quay, which is a popular spot for dining along the river. Not that day - everyone was eating inside, and it looked like a lot of people had just stayed home altogether. Holland Village was also eerily quiet. The MRT trains were less crowded than usual, and they were slower - speeds had been slowed to cope with low visibility.

The haze at Clarke Quay

The haze eased off, dropping below 100 in my last two days there. Even so, the air still smelled like bonfire. I never thought I'd be so happy to breathe the fresh St Louis air!!

Despite my temporary reprieve, the government warned that the fires are incredibly hard to fight, and could rage on for months. The seasonal winds will continue to blow toward Singapore, and the haze is likely to yo-yo up and down, possibly into September or October. It's a horrible situation, but the silver lining is that it has forced people to think about palm oil plantations and the devastating effects that they're having on the environment. Boycotting unsustainable palm oil is a way to help protect endangered species habitat, and to ensure that Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans have fresh air to breathe. If you're interested in learning more, this is a great resource! And this!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Temporary Return

When I left Singapore 11 months ago, I didn't really know when I would be back again, if ever. Flights to the opposite side of the planet are costly enough that I didn't anticipate dropping by to visit friends for a few days. But about two months ago I got a phone call from a colleague in Singapore with an offer I couldn't refuse - fly to Singapore to give a talk about the monkeys and to work on some research for two weeks, all expenses paid. I almost laughed when he asked if I'd be "willing to" return. Of course! Where do I sign?!

So I went back to Singapore. I mostly worked while I was there, but I did have some time to squeeze in fun and friends. I'm bringing this blog out of retirement for a brief time to share some posts about my visit. I hope you enjoy!
Back to the land of the merlion!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Stick with us at our New Blog!

Many of you have been following this blog for the past few years, and you already know that Bryan and I relocated to St Louis, Missouri, USA a few months ago. My intention was to keep blogging at a new URL right away, but planning a wedding, an international move, and starting at a new school was a lot to take on at once! Now that the wedding is done (Yay! We're married!), I finally got around to getting a new blog set up. I hope you'll follow our American adventures at Bryan and Crystal All Over (http://bryanandcrystal.blogspot.com/).

Thanks for reading all about our Southeast Asian adventures!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Last Farewell to Singapore

Ah, you thought you'd heard the last of me, huh? Well, it turns out I have a couple more posts left in me after a four-month hiatus from blogging! I want to tell you about my bittersweet last week in Singapore. And I also wanted to let everyone know that I'm going to keep blogging, but at a new URL that I'll share soon...so stay tuned!

So I left Singapore at the very end of July, 10 days after Bryan had already departed for the US. It was a strange time for me - I was running all over the place, trying to wrap up work and get all of our affairs in order before leaving. I was so busy that I hardly had time to process the fact that I was really going back to the US. But I did take the time to take myself on one last Singapore outing.

The Blog Awards occurred my last Saturday in Singapore (nope, we didn't win, but props to Spin or Bin Music and all the other winners!) I went solo to the Blog Awards, which took place on the Singapore Food Trail. Honestly, it wasn't the time of my life - it was hot and crowded and I couldn't hear very well. But it was cool  to see some of the other bloggers, especially the super adorable little boys who won the Best V-Log category. But for me, the big highlight was the free ride on the Singapore Flyer that came after the awards ceremony was over!
Flyer from afar

The Singapore Flyer is the tallest Ferris wheel in the world (well, technically it's an observation wheel, but whatever). It's one of the most noticeable landmarks on Singapore's skyline. I'd been avoiding it for the past three years because Bryan's not a big fan of heights and the cost for a ride is a bit high (SG$33 per person). But of course, I'm always game for a free ride!
The wheel's rotation brings it right down into the building where you board the Flyer.

A visit to the Flyer starts with a walk through the melodramatically named "Journey of Dreams," a little museum. There was a hodgepodge of interesting stuff in there, including a funky art installation by artist David Chan Kien Wai.
Oneiroi's Orb, made of 1500 everyday objects
Also featured was a miniature Flyer.
Singapore loves miniatures. I support this obsession.

I didn't spend much time in the Journey of Dreams since I was eager to move on to the main event. I passed through a turnstile and onto the "flight deck," which had a cool view of the giant space-age capsules that you ride in.
Each capsule holds up to 28 people!

The wheel turns really slowly and doesn't stop for people to get on and off. You just have to hop on and watch your step! The loading platform is really long and curved, so there's enough time for the people in the capsule to get out, and for new people to board on the other side. So I piled on in with about 15 other strangers.
The capsule ahead of us, just as we start the ride
Doesn't look very secure, does it?!

It was a gorgeous, clear day, so the visibility was great. One of the first things I noticed was that the aerial view of the new Gardens by the Bay was really awesome.
The famous supertrees
Supertrees and greenhouses
Me up in the air!

Looking back down on the building that I was just in was a bit dizzying!
You can see how someone with a fear of heights might not love it...
Looks a bit fragile from this angle!
Looking inside and outside at the same time was trippy too!!

It's amazing how much you can see from the flyer on such a crystal clear day! It really made me realize just how small Singapore really is.
Downtown
Downtown - MBS off to the left
The Esplanade with the spaceship-esque Supreme Court building in the background
ArtScience Museum

Remember how I said that there are tons of HDB buildings in Singapore?
I wasn't kidding.

After I had my feet back on solid ground, I decided to walk over to the newly opened Gardens by the Bay, since it would be my last chance to check it out. It had looked so close from the Flyer, but it turned out to be a bit of a walk, especially because you can't cut across Marina Bay Sands areas to take the most direct route. It was a hot day, so I ended up stopping in at MBS for a cold drink, and eventually I made my way to the Gardens by going down to the MRT and following the signs from there. It's so frustrating to be able to see a place but not to be able to get to it! But in the end, it was worth all the hassle.
Dragonfly sculpture at Dragonfly Lake

The supertrees were much more impressive up close. They're massive in scale -  there are 18 of them, and the tallest is 16 stories tall. There are over 150,000 plants comprising more than 200 species planted all over them, and if that's not impressive enough, they light up at night!
Supertree Grove
There were a LOT of people there

The supertrees were amazing to behold, but the areas around them were crammed with curious onlookers, so I wandered into a less crowded part of the garden before long. The conservatories are also pretty beautiful close-up, but since the gardens had just opened they were really popular so I decided not to go in.
So futuristic...I expected lasers to start shooting out at any second

There were lots of neat sculptures scattered around the gardens, which made aimless wandering interesting and rewarding!
In the India-themed part of the garden
Off in a quiet corner that I had all to myself!

Away from the main supertree grove is a smaller area with just a few of the impressive structures. I was able to stand and quietly admire them for a few minutes without being jostled by hundreds of other onlookers.
So geometric!

There's a nice view of Marina Bay Sands from the gardens too. It was weird to see it from the other side. The Garden area had been closed for a long time since it was under construction, so I'd never seen MBS from this angle.
Fancy pants

I hadn't been at the Gardens very long, but it had been a long, hot day, so I headed home. As I sat on the MRT it occurred to me that this was my last big hoorah. I had lots of work to do over the next few days, with wrapping up my job and with getting my stuff packed and trying to tie up all the loose ends associated with vacating a country. I wouldn't have time for any more big adventures. It was strange to think about, but I was glad that I'd spent the day taking myself out on a date in the city. It was a nice farewell to the country that had become a second home.

So that was it! I headed back to Ohio a few days later, and started making preparations for our impending move to St. Louis. Compared to our previous international moves, a move to St. Louis seemed like a cakewalk! Now that we're back in the US, I plan to start another blog. Once it's up and running, I'll post one last update here. Thanks to everyone who followed our Southeast Asian adventures over the past few years - we loved sharing them with you!