Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Misadventure in Little India

Last weekend, I was itching to explore someplace new, but the haze was making Bryan and I hesitant to spend the day outside.  I dusted off our Singapore guidebook and found the Museum of Shanghai Toys, which looked like a delightfully bizarre way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  The museum's website boasted photos of boatloads of toys, most of them antique, some of them creepy enough to star in their own horror movie.  I though my dad, who enjoys collecting old toys, would particularly enjoy seeing photos from this little adventure, so we headed off.  Our destination was Little India, which seemed to me an unlikely location for a museum featuring Shanghai oddities.

Little India was all decked out in anticipation of next month's Deepavali festival, which is huge for Indians- most of our Indian friends are flying home for the celebration, and plane tickets to India for next month have increased to the preposterous rates usually reserved for flying to the U.S. for Christmas.  Little India looked like it was ready to start the celebration now.
Deepavali street decorations
The museum was quite a walk from the MRT station, so we set about the tedious task of weaving our way through the extraordinarily crowded streets of Little India.  A stroll through this neighborhood is an absolute assault on your senses- the smell of Indian spices permeates the air, horns honk almost continually as pedestrians plunge out into the streets wherever they please, Bollywood music blasts from speakers mounted outside shops, and every bright shade of the rainbow is represented in the stands along the street- bright yellow thalis, vivid red saris, deep orange pakoras, lush green herbs.  If you weren't hungry before you got there, you will be after a couple of minutes of smelling all that food!

We passed by a temple that we'd seen a couple of times before- the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (say that five times fast).  No matter how many times I see it, I always want to pause to photograph it.  At my request, Bryan snapped a few shots from across the street.
Beautiful temple with a not-so-attractive backdrop
Mind-boggling detal
We finally turned down Rowell Street, where we expected to find our museum.  Instead we found a vacant building at the address we'd gotten from the website.  We walked up and down the length of the street, but despite the fact that the Shanghai Toy Museum's website is still up and running, the place itself was obviously gone.  We were out of luck!  We'd planned to spend a few hours at the museum before trying out Banana Leaf Apolo for dinner.  Unfortunately, the restaurant closes between lunch and dinner, so we were now just kind of stuck with nothing to do but wander around.  We roamed awhile, admiring the blend of modern and colonial architecture that characterizes Little India.
Futuristic architecture with old townhouses in the foreground
See the plants growing out of the building wall?

The little girl in me has always wanted a purple house
Love this funky staircase
We ended up at a place called Sitara for an early dinner.  It was tasty enough to make me forget all about the restaurant we intended to visit, and we both left with full stomachs and smiles.  To end our day, we headed to the positively chaotic Mustafa Centre to buy some frozen paneer.  Mustafa is ludicrous- it's a massive shopping centre, taking up four or five stories and covering more than one city block (I honestly don't know how big it really is.  In my mind, it's endless).  They sell everything, from frozen Indian dinners to Playstation 3's.  And it's ALWAYS packed with people, every day of the week, day or night.  The aisles are close together, and apparently they're always being cited for violating fire codes, but I guess they just pay the fines and keep doing their thing.  They have to be raking in so much money that those fines are barely a blip on their radar anyway.  Whenever you buy stuff at Mustafa, they seal up your shopping bag to prevent shoplifting.  It sure looks funny!

On the purple line train, we noticed a little window that was originally built for the driver to look out.  I don't know if the trains are automated now, or if a separate compartment for the driver was built, but the place where the control panel used to be was boarded over, so we stood in the little window.  Bryan took pictures as we sped through dark underground tunnels.  It was a perspective we don't usually see, and it made me feel like we were rocketing through outer space!
Zooming through the MRT tunnel

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Haze Descends

Here in Singapore, we haven't seen the sun in about a week.  Everything outdoors smells like a campfire, visibility is awful, and the air is stale with every breath you take.  The constant exposure to the caustic air makes me cough, and headaches have been coming and going all week for me and many others in Singapore.

The haze that has engulfed Singapore is coming from Sumatra, where farmers burning land to plant yet another palm oil plantation (just what the world needs, right?) lost control of the fires, and they burned wild.  The smoke has blown over to Singapore and Malaysia, causing the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) to spike over 100, into the "unhealthy" range.  As if anyone needed to tell us that inhaling smoke for a solid week isn't good for our health.  The Indonesian government has done little to control the situation, despite Singapore's repeated offers to assist with fighting fires.  Perhaps obviously, the problem has been a little worse on the west side of the island where we live, closer to Sumatra.
The view out our window last month (no haze)
View out our window Sat. morning, when the PSI was in the 70's.  On Thurs., the PSI was over 100.
Bryan did a neat juxtaposition- the stripe down the middle is from a clear day last month.
Left= Saturday's haze.  Right= A clear day last month.
One the left, the haze this morning.  On the right, a clear day last month.
Doesn't exactly make you want to step outside for a breath of fresh air, does it?
For the first couple of days, we really didn't know what was going on- there was nothing in the news about the haze, and having never experienced it before, we were kind of clueless.  All the information we got came from asking native Singaporeans what was going on.  Eventually the Straits Times started covering the story, and you can read some of the coverage on the issue here, here, here, and here.  Apparently this is not a new problem- in 1997 and 2006, environmentally irresponsible burning in Indonesia generated haze that spread over Southeast Asia and lasted for months.

For the sake of everyone in Sumatra, who are much worse off than we are, for everyone in Malaysia and Singapore, and for the hard-hit wildlife of Indonesia, I hope that action is taken soon to get the fires under control.  In the meanwhile, we'll be roasting inside our apartment with all the windows and doors shut!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Singapore Books: Notes from an Even Smaller Island

A friend at work referred Bryan to a few books on Singapore by author Neil Humphreys, a British expat who lived here.  The first of his books, Notes From an Even Smaller Islandis hilarious.  His life in Singapore shares a lot in common with ours- living in an HDB flat, hanging out at the hawker centres, struggling to understand Singlish and to have his accent understood by the locals.  All of his adventures are recounted with a somewhat cynical but always funny slant, and I found myself giggling out loud more than once (how can you not laugh at the image of a 6 ft 4 white giant with a cockney accent lumbering around Singapore's heartland?!).  Humphreys does criticize some aspects of Singaporean life, and sometimes I think he makes somewhat unfair sweeping generalizations, but for the most part I agree with what he's saying.  And I share his fascination with and respect for the little old ladies (the Singaporean "aunties") who seem indestructible.  Like him, I'm continually awestruck when a hunched, 80-year-old lady lugging four shopping bags hobbles past me and onto the bus.  How do they do it?  I recommend the book, especially for any westerners living in S'pore, or thinking about moving here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

More Miscommunication Hilarity

One Friday evening, Bryan and I were hanging out at a hawker centre in our neighborhood.  It's a place we go to relax and have a few beers sometimes, so the people who work there usually recognize us (after all, they don't have many Caucasian regulars over here in Jurong East).  As Bryan and I sipped our Tigers, we noticed that a couple at a table near ours had bottles of Tsingtao, a Chinese beer, on the table.  Bryan and I both like Tsingtao, but we didn't know that this hawker centre served it (it's not on their drink board).  So we decided that the next time the drink girl came around to see what we wanted, we'd get a couple of Tsingtao.  If only we'd known what we were getting ourselves into.

Drink Girl: You wan' 'notha Tiga?
Tsingtao- the beer that plays hard to get
Crystal: Actually, can we have two Tsingtao?
Drink Girl: (eyes widen) Wha?
Crystal: Tsingtao?  Two please?
Drink Girl: Siiiiing....toooooe, ah?  Wha?
Bryan: Tsingtao? The beer?
Drink Girl: Wha' you wan'?  Wan' Tiga?
Bryan: Ummm....the green bottle?  Tsingtao?
Drink Girl: Siiiiiiing...toe.  Ah?
Crystal: Yeah!  That's it!
Drink Girl: Huh?  (looks around, taps nearby woman on the shoulder.  They converse briefly in Mandarin, probably saying something along the lines of, hey, can you understand what these crazy white people are saying because I sure as hell can't.)
New Woman: Wha' you wan'?
Bryan and Crystal: (in unison) Tsingtao!  Two!  Please!
New Woman: Sing tow ah?
(To my inexperienced ear, what we're saying and what they're saying sounds EXACTLY THE SAME, and I cannot fathom how they are not understanding us).
Crystal: (hopefully) Yeah! Tsingtao!
(At this point, half of the hawker centre has turned around to stare at us.  Drink Girl and the woman exchange a look that suggests that I am perhaps trying to order something that doesn't exist.  We give it one more try.)
Bryan: bottle.
(A woman at the next table turns around and gestures to us)
Woman #2: Tsingtao.  China beer, lah.
Bryan and Crystal: Yeah!!! China beer!!!!!
Drink Girl: OHHHHH  TSINGTAO!!!!! Be righ' back.

So we finally got our beer, and it was delicious.  As it turns out, it's cheaper than Tiger, so we've been drinking it ever since.  And now they now what we're asking for, although they still grin every time we say it.

On another fine day, I was in the produce section at Giant.  You may recall my previous humiliation there, but this time I managed to top it.  I was a little spaced out, just trying to get a few things and get out of there before the after-work rush began.  It was already a little crowded, so I left my cart parked off to one side as I went to grab some bread, then I picked it back up and pushed it off to another aisle.  The next thing I knew, I felt a sharp smack on my arm and turned to find an angry little old lady next to me.  She shook an accusing, arthritic finger at me, then at the cart.

Angry Old Lady: MINE!!!!  THIS MINE!!! NOT YOURS!!!
(I stared into the cart and immediately realized that it was, in fact, NOT mine.  I flushed bright red.)
Me: OH MY GOSH!!!! I'm so sorry!  I left mine over there (pointing) and I must have grabbed yours in confusion!  I apologize, ma'am!
Angry Old Lady: MINE!!!!  THIS MINE!!!!!
(needless to say, there was staring at this point, as everyone was wondering why this overgrown ang moh was harassing this poor old woman. I backed away, still apologizing, but that didn't appease her.)
Angry Old Lady: NOT YOURS!!!!!!!!!!!!! MINE!!!!!!!!!!!
(I felt that I wanted to melt into the floor as she continued to stare me down as though I'd just intentionally kicked her in the shin or punched her grandchild.)

OK, here's the thing.  I know that was my fault, and I was being flaky.  I shouldn't have been wandering around with someone else's cart.  And I would understand her flipping out and humiliating me if her purse had been in the basket but it wasn't.  In fact, the only things in there were some bok choy and some lettuce.  So I really don't think her castigation was necessary.  And why would I intentionally steal it?  Did she think I also came to the store to purchase bok choy and lettuce, and that I just wandered around until I found a cart with exactly what I wanted in it?  And it's not as though I was stealing the cart itself, because Giant never has a shortage of those.  Even if she didn't speak English very well, she had to understand from my face and tone of voice that I was apologizing.  I think she was just a bitter old lady and I got in her way that day.  But I'll tell you this- from now on, I'm going to be in my toes in the Giant produce section.  I can't bear any more public disgrace there.

On a less mortifying note, my super nice landlord was hanging out at our flat one day, waiting on a maintenance person to come examine our broken aircon (oh, the misery).  I had How I Met Your Mother on the TV, and he suddenly got excited, and pointed at Robin, the character played by actress Cobie Smulders.

Landlord: Crystal!  Is Demi Moore, lah.
Close...but not quite
Me: Oh, um, actually, I don't think that's her.
Landlord: No!  It's Demi Moore.  She is married to Bruce Willis.  Do you know Bruce Willis?
Me: Yeah, I mean, I know who he is and who she is, but I think...
Landlord: Yup.  That's her.  She's quite pretty.
Me: But I think her name is actually....
Landlord: That's not Demi Moore!!!!  Silly.  Sometimes it's hard to tell white people apart, you know.

This one just made me laugh, because I know that it's harder for me to tell Asians apart than it is for me to tell Caucasians apart.  It was good to know that it's a two-way street.

This last one didn't include any misunderstanding, but it was hilarious nonetheless.  I was riding the elevator in our HDB building one day, and when the doors opened on the first floor, I was greeted with a long line of about 20 preschool-age Singaporean kids.  Upon seeing me, the one closest to the door shouted "ANG MOH!" and then ALL the kids turned around, started clapping, jumping up and down, and joining in the chorus of "ANG MOH! ANG MOH!!"  I waved like a celebrity and continued on my way.  It made my day.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

National Art Gallery Launch

Two of Singapore's most historic buildings, City Hall and the former Supreme Court Building, are slated to be transformed into the exciting new National Art Gallery.  This ambitious project is expected to be completed by 2013, and the launch of the project's open house took place this Friday, October 8th.  As part of a blogging club, I was invited to go to the launch, take photos, and attend a guided tour of the former Supreme Court Building before it's forever changed by this new restructuring.  I've never attended anything like this, but I readily agreed- I've long admired the big, majestic building, but have never been inside.
City Hall in the foreground & the dome of the former Supreme Court on a rainy day
The launch was quite an affair.  Singaporean artists, bloggers, the media, and officials from the government and the art gallery all attended.  The CEO of the gallery, Michael Koh, made some remarks and then introduced guest of honor Lui Tuck Yew, Acting Minister for Information, Communication, and the Arts.  Mr. Lui handed out prizes for a photo competition that had been held in anticipation of the launch of the gallery- photographers were previously allowed access to the two buildings to take photos, with some stunning results.  After the conferring of the prizes, Lui joined together with Koh and several other key figures for the official launch of the gallery open house- and confetti exploded everywhere!  It was an exciting moment. 
Mr. Lui awards Yap Kim Hock with the Grand Prize in the Open Category of the photo contest.
Ong Yi Chao, Grand Prize winner of the Youth Category
Official launch of the National Art Gallery Open House!
Neat shadow
 I was enjoying my time poking around the main hall of the Supreme Court building, but I quickly noticed that I looked a bit out of place.  There were only a few other Caucasian faces in the crowd and they seemed well-connected, chatting with their colleagues.  I was a bit adrift, not knowing anyone, and I felt eyes on me a few times, perhaps wondering if I was a wayward tourist that had wandered in off the street.  Or maybe they were staring because I'd unknowingly commandeered the VIP table for my own use.  It's hard to say.

After the official launch, a gaggle of Singaporean artists tromped out to the City Hall steps, where a smart red carpet had been laid out, for a photo op with Mr. Lui.  Lots of arranging and rearranging later, the shot was achieved (you can see the more high-quality Straits Times photo here, along with the accompanying news story), and everyone filed back inside for tea.  A small part of City Hall has already been turned into finished gallery space, with all of the winning photos from the photo competition on display, in addition to some historical information about the buildings, and a nifty, high-tech animation of what the buildings will look like once the project has been completed.
Singaporean artists outside City Hall
 After some delicious, vegetarian-friendly snacks, I began looking around for my group.  I was supposed to complete my tour with a group of bloggers, who were all wearing green stickers, but suddenly my green sticker seemed very lonely.  I couldn't find anyone who matched me.  I approached one of the organizers who told me to try to join up with the next English-speaking group.  A little awkward confusion later, I was off with a group of older Singaporean artists, who were very friendly and seemed delighted to have me along.
Yummy veggie snacks, catered by Rasel
The tour was spectacular.  Our guide was knowledgeable and genuinely excited to show us all around.  She told us that her grandfather had worked in the court building as a younger man, and she felt personally connected to this bit of Singaporean history.  Our tour began in the main hall of the Supreme Court Building, where the launch had been held.  The guide pointed out a large floor tile that I'd noticed earlier, and explained that there's a time capsule buried under the tile, and the capsule includes copies of the Straits Times and old coins, among other things, from when the tile was placed back in 1937.  It's not supposed to be unearthed until the year 3000!  So if you're reading this 990 years from now, grab some tools and a couple of buddies and head on over to the Supreme Court building- those coins are bound to be worth something by now!
Stairs leading out of the main hall
Our guide shared lots of interesting information with us, but what I found most fascinating was how the building was built economically.  When the Supreme Court Building was originally constructed in the late 1930's, Singapore wasn't the prosperous place that it is today, but officials still wanted a respectable building.  They accomplished the grandeur of the building by creatively cutting corners.  For instance, large columns outside the building appear to be made from granite, but are actually made of a cheaper gypsum composite.  Many of the floors inside also have the appearance of marble, but are actually made of rubber!  Once the guide told us, I could see that she was right, but I never would have guessed it otherwise.  She said this was a big moneysaver, and it also served a soundproofing function- if you've ever been in a big marble hallway with a bunch of other people, you know how sound can carry down those things.  Not so with a rubber one!  Maybe this is what we should do with all of our old tires!
Rubber floor
 We stopped in a couple of regal, intimidating courtrooms.  I was impressed by how well-preserved they were.  My absolute favorite part was heavy door in the floor, which opened onto a flight of stairs coming out of an area of holding cells down below.  Prisoners would be escorted up out of the floor and into a special holding area for their trial.  The dirty stairs and the dim lighting were in such strange contrast to the beautiful, polished courtroom.  As Bryan later pointed out, it must be pretty hard to look innocent when appearing out of the floor, as though rising out of hell itself!
Intimidating lock on the door in the floor.  I also dig the dusty bootprints.
 The chief justice had some pretty impressive chambers, but I was too busy ogling his bookshelves to notice much else.  I loved the old shields on the glass doors.
Pretty, huh?
The most unique room we saw was definitely the rotunda library.  When the National Art Gallery is completed, this space will be conserved and used as an area where visitors can learn more about the exhibitions and artwork housed in the gallery.  For now, it's pretty empty, but manages to maintain its grandeur.  Apparently the place served as a police post for some time, so there's still some old surveillance equipment lying around., and we all know how much I love old, abandoned stuff, so it provided me with some entertainment.
Super retro surveillance equipment
After the tour, I checked out the gallery in a little more depth before leaving.  I loved this tiny model of the two buildings.  I think there's something about women that makes us love miniature things.

If you're interested in seeing these two buildings or the photos on exhibit in the gallery, the Open House will be running for the next two weekends.  There will be loads of activities, including a light show in the evenings, a portrait artist, guided tours, a flea market, and goodie bags.  You can get more information here.  It will certainly be interesting to see how this space evolves over the next few years!

Friday, October 8, 2010

New MRT Jingle

As if the morning commute weren't annoying enough, this jingle now plays every time a train approaches:

It says "Train is coming, train is coming, train is comiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!  Start queueing!  Love yoooour ride!"  It's cute sometimes, but when I'm grumpy or tired, it makes me want to punch something.  Preferably the speaker it's coming out of.

Here's an extended song by the same lovely ladies, the Dim Sum Dollies (who, rather hilariously, remind me a bit of the Kinsey Sicks).  The video and song sometimes play on the TV screens in the MRT stations in between trains.  Usually it's playing pretty quietly and I ignore it, so it was pretty fun  to actually watch the video.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Monkey Walk

In cooperation with NParks, NTU, and the Jane Goodall Institute of Singapore, Dr. Gumert and I are going to start leading a monkey walk at Bukit Timah.  The walks will be open to the public, and are intended to educate people about the monkeys- their situation as animals living in close contact with humans, their behaviors, and their individual uniqueness.  People often lump the monkeys together as one big thing, and are surprised to learn that the monkeys we study are each individuals with names, generally easily identified.  Last weekend, we did a practice run for the monkey walk, and it went pretty well.  The group is pretty lovable right now, with all those sweet little infants hanging around.  For your enjoyment, here are the seven infants of the Hindhede group.
Nad, the highest-ranking female, takes her baby on a backwards pony ride.
Motherhood makes Goldmoon tired.
Izzy's baby Ivan has grown fast over the past couple months, and spends lots of time exploring on his own now.
Julia's baby is the newest addition to the group
Sunny's a very protective first-time mother.
Penney's baby is adorable and energetic.
Keira's baby, holding on tight

And it's looking like we'll have an eighth pretty soon- Camille's baby belly is starting to bulge!  I'm happy to see her pregnant again.  Her last baby, Dora, was killed by a car and it just about broke my heart.
Preggy Monkey

The monkeys were hanging out along Hindhede Road- not the most scenic spot for a nature walk- but even so, I think the monkey walk trial run went well.  The monkeys were active and in a spot where they were easy to observe, so everyone got to see the babies, and to witness some interesting behavior, including Annette's power-line acrobatics.
Monkey Walk
Agile Annette

As a special bonus. we spotted a lovely bird flitting around the trees super fast, almost like a hummingbird.  When we got home and looked it up, we discovered that it is a crimson sunbird.  This pretty little thing is actually the national bird of Singapore!  Apparently many people thought it was a suitable bird to represent Singapore, since the country is sometimes referred to as the "little red dot." 

Adorable baby monkeys and colorful birds- not a bad day!  If you're interested in attending a monkey walk, keep checking the blog- I'll update the next time we have one!