Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011 (Singapore)

A HAWKER CENTRE A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY: For the second day in a row, we had lunch at one of the hawker centres. This time it was the historic Lau Pa Sat, which is about two blocks away. Anyway, we thought seriously about the bbq sting ray dish. Instead, we fled to the safe harbor of tandoori chicken wraps (which took about FOUR HOURS for the perfectionist behind the counter to make). While waiting for the masterpieces to be completed, I ambled over to a stall and bought a curry puff (shown here). I had seen them on sale during our walk yesterday on Joo Chiat Road. The flaky crust hides a soft curry/potato mixture. It was delicious. It cost a SingBuck. I will buy another one someday, somewhere.

EXTRA: For a quick look at the rise of Singapore, check out this article in the Economist.

CRANE UPDATE: Things are still busy over Easter weekend at the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal here in Singapore. The "down" cranes outnumber the "up" cranes by quite a bit according to the latest Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator. The activity is a good indicator of something. Any idea what it indicates? Me neither. Here's the latest look-out-the-window tally:

Date: April 24
Time: 9 a.m. (Singapore time)
Cranes Up (bad): 10
Cranes Down (good): 15
CRANES MISSING (neutral): 2

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011 (Singapore)

FOOD ON THE RUN: We decided to take a 2.5-mile stroll from the Paya Leber MRT station through the Peranakan section of the city, along Joo Chiat Road. Right off the subway, we wandered into the Haig Road Market & Cooked Food Center and had some rice-based Nasi Goreng Putih (with chicken) at the Al-Rahman Muslim Food stall. A dishful costs S$3.50, and it was extremely tasty. Drinks were extra, from another stall.
Hawker centers in Singapore have an interesting history and the government's National Environment Agency has a grading system for cleanliness, hygiene and housekeeping. The grades are renewed annually, with some provisions for qualifying for a mid-year review. This place has a B grade (right). That's really not so bad. Some say some tourists keep their eyes peeled for A-graded stalls. However, some local logic tilts some Singaporeans to the B- and C-graded stalls. The thinking: These stalls are SO BUSY serving great food that they are UNABLE to keep the place TOTALLY CLEAN.
Again, our B-rated food was excellent.

OFF TO THE PARK: The walk opened up a very distinctive new neighborhood for us. We enjoyed the decor of many of the two-story shophouses along Joo Chiat Road (above). We also noticed plenty businesses devoted to remodeling, renovations, construction and interior design. Sprinkled among them were plenty of karaoke bars and eateries.
Our destination was the city's East Coast Park, which sits on a 15-kilometer stretch of reclaimed land east of the central city. We got to the park about 3 p.m., and it was buzzing. Lots of bicyclists, rollerbladers, picnickers and walkers. And, we spotted what looked like a "balloon boy" (left) who was distributing Easter-related helium balloons (with a "risen" theme). We had a salad and beer at Scruffy Murphys and took a cab home.
Didn't see a grade for Scruffy's from the NEA.
Didn't really mind.
Not too much, anyway.

CRANE UPDATE: It's probably about time to explain a bit about how the Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator is put together. I do this at the risk of exposing the pathetic, lazy nature of the enterprise, but we might find out that this is as good an economic indicator as any. The observation is based on the south-looking view from our living room window (above). This looks at a portion of the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal. Some cranes are in the UP position (meaning they are idle) and others are in the DOWN position (meaning they are loading or unloading various containers). The view is fairly narrow, hence the word "Limited" in the title.
The most recent view is very enouraging.
It seems to mark a bounceback in the upswing of the DOWN cranes! Here it is:

Date: April 23
Time: 9 a.m. (Singapore time)
Cranes Up (bad): 8
Cranes Down (good): 17
CRANES MISSING (neutral): 2

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011 (Singapore)

BE CAREFUL OUT THERE: I'm not sure when the display went up, but I noticed it for the first time today. The area above Raffles station has a couple of installations geared to remind people to TAKE NO RISKS at work. (This has nothing to do with the concept of kiasu, or fear of losing, which has surfaced in this blog.) One of the installations shows a woman and desk chair half buried in the turf. This is to remind people not to use an OFFICE CHAIR as a LADDER.
As a long-time chair/ladder climber, I have a different takeaway on the display: Don't use a chair WITH WHEELS as a ladder if you are WEARING HIGH HEELS. (That's kind of a poem; makes it easier to remember.)
By the way, I hope the guy reading the newspaper in the background of the top photo (shown in a blurry closeup at left) doesn't trip over any of the letters in R-I-S-K-S.

MEN (AND SOME WOMEN) IN WHITE: Now that election season has begun, the ruling People's Action Party members have broken out their white suits. The uniform of white shirt and white pants has been a hallmark of the party for decades, to represent the party's integrity and the absence of corruption in the party's ranks. (For a more detailed explanation, scroll to the "Why Are They White?" explanation here.) Wednesday's Straits Times printed the photo at right, showing a victory wave from key members of the ruling People's Action Party following a "walkover" in the 2006 elections.
The clothing style is discussed in the 2009 book, Men In White (right). According to an Aug. 29, 2009 article in the Straits Times by Zakir Hussain, here's the origin:
Mr Yap recounts how at the PAP's inauguration at Victoria Memorial Hall on Nov 21, 1954, many members of the audience were taken aback by the sight of the party's founding members and convenors striding onstage in white open-necked shirts and cotton trousers.
They had expected to see them in ties and suits. 'That struck an instant rapport with the people, as one interviewee told me,' he says, adding that the party whites have since been a defining element of the PAP till today.
It appears that each party has a certain uniform, kind of a mix between a bowling shirt and a polo shirt. They are proud of their affiliations and promote their teamwork. I'm not sure if this would fly in the United States--especially the all-white look. First of all, nobody in the U.S. would believe that government officials actually had integrity and operated above corruption. In addition, we might be unable to shake the image of Steve Martin in The Jerk (right). However, it has worked here in Singapore. And U.S. voters should be among the last people to snicker at efforts to demonstrate clean government.
But I do have one question: If white is so important for the party that's been in charge for so long, why does it seem so hard or expensive to get dry cleaning done quickly in this city?

IT'S A HOLIDAY (GOOD FRIDAY), AND THAT MIGHT EXPLAIN THE CRANE DRAIN: For the third time in the HISTORY of the Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator, the cranes in the UP position (inactive) outnumber those in the DOWN position (active). Maybe the workers deserve a welcome break at the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal. Hardly anybody in the city is working today (April 22). But the construction work is moving right along in our neighborhood, Good Friday or no Good Friday. The most recent report:
Date: April 22
Time: 9 a.m. (Singapore time)
Cranes Up (bad): 18
Cranes Down (good): 7
CRANES MISSING (neutral): 2

Wednesday, April 20, 2011 (Singapore)

ABOUT SEVENTEEN DAYS TO GO: It's official. Singapore has set May 7 as the date for its next General Election. I like the fact that it's on a Saturday, when fewer people are working. The Straits Times bannered the announcement in this morning's paper (right). The Asian edition of The Wall Street Journal put the story on its front page and took the time to put the election in perspective. For one thing, the ruling party, the People's Action Party has a decades-long grip on power. In the last election, in May 2006, the PAP won 82 of the 84 seats and snared 67 percent of the vote. One aspect of this election that is UNPRECEDENTED is that opposition candidates are expected to appear on the ballot for each seat. That has never happened before. The Journal article says, "No one expects the opposition to win, or even seriously challenge the People's Action Party's grip on power. But a stronger opposition represents another step along Singapore's slow road to greater pluralism and liberalization." Some items of concern here are high inflation and a growing wealth disparity. The Journal says that UN figures place Singapore's income inequality at No. 2 among 42 nation's with "very high human development."
With the GE slated for May 7, the Friday before acquires the label of "Cooling-Off Day" (as depicted at right in a Straits Times graphic). This is NEW this year. The day is designed to "give voters 24 hours to reflect rationally on their choice." Campaigning is prohibited, with certain exceptions. No brand-new political ads are supposed to air that day. I suppose it's an attempt to avoid a version of what Americans know as an "October surprise". It's odd, however, because the provisions for the so-called "cooling off" day still allows "mainstream" media to continue its reports on the election. Such outlets here are controlled by the ruling power and generally take pro-government stances. Not everyone thinks this is a great idea.

LONG DISTANCE TALKING: We are using Skype and gmail to stay in touch with a number of people, mostly family members. Today we talked with Andrew (right), to discuss sudden changes in his summer internship. It turns out he will not be in Beijing; rather, he will be in Hong Kong. He is likely to be there beginning May 8 or so--too late for the General Election in Singapore.

CRANES MIGHT HAVE ENDED WILD SWINGS IN STATUS: We might have detected a moderation in the swings of the cranes at the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal. The "up" cranes dipped from 10 to 9, thereby bringing a smile to the staff that puts together the Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator. The most recent report:
Date: April 21
Time: 9 a.m. (Singapore time)
Cranes Up (bad): 9
Cranes Down (good): 16
CRANES MISSING (neutral): 2

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011 (Singapore)

WALKING THROUGH A CEMETERY WITHOUT GRAVES: Today I headed to the northeast section of the city to check out what's left of Bidadari Cemetery. The place is important to me because that's where my grandmother's only sister was buried--for a year--before she was exhumed and transported to a final resting place in Worcester, Mass.
My great aunt Dorothy (right) died of typhoid in Singapore on April 1, 1909, while on an around-the-world tour with her parents. She had turned 19 years old only a month earlier. Her presence hovered over the family when we grew up because a fabulous close-to-life-size portrait of her hung in my grandmother's house. The word "Singapore," therefore, seemed to always have a mysterious and gloomy cast to it.
She went to the General Hospital in Singapore on March 27, for treatment for typhoid. The Straits Times noted that medical officials thought she had become sick while in India. She died on Thursday evening April 1. She was embalmed by a Dr. Handy for transport to the United States probably James Muthiah Handy. According to the Straits Times she was put in the ground the next day at Bidadari Cemetery--once it was determined that the shipping of the body was too difficult to arrange at short notice. The Straits Times described the service in this way:
"She was buried at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, the scene at the ceremony at Bidadari being most impressive in the moonlight, the officiating clergyman reading the burial service by the aid of a lamp. Several of the nursing staff of the General Hospital were present at the graveside." (ST, April 5, 1909, page 6)
A year later, her body was exhumed, as mentioned in the Straits Times on April 7, 1910:
"The remains of Miss Dorothy Lincoln, who died in April 1909, and was buried at Bidadari, were exhumed on the 4th inst., by Mr. Albert L.A. Daley, undertaker, and shipped by him on the steamer Indravelli to New York."
For the record, the hard-working Mr. Daley handled a lot of death-related needs in the area, as you can tell from the advertisement he had in the Straits Times on the appropriate--but somewhat ghoulish--date of Oct. 31, 1910 (right).
Many other exhumations were to follow because the Bidadari Christian Cemetery, and its neighboring cemetery for Muslims, have since been emptied of bodies. What's left is a vast greensward (above), poised for the ongoing and never-ending development that is Singapore.
There's plenty of signs of life nearby, including the well-uniformed students of the Cedar Girls Secondary School on the far side of a chain link fence (right). On the other side, Upper Serangoon Road hums with commuters.
Within the wide open spaces of the former cemetery (and the contiguous Muslim cemetery) skitters the occasional lizard, squirrel and bird. Many people seem to enjoy the setting as a place to walk or jog and worry about the encroaching building. It's certainly no Botanic Gardens, but it was an island of peace.

A PUZZLING T-SHIRT: We first saw this shirt on Sunday on Sentosa Island. We assumed this dealt with a college football game and anticipated mentioning the sighting to nephew Tim Driscoll (who's at Alabama).
Amazingly, I spotted it again today, being worn by a man on my subway car. Trying to act nonchalant, I asked him about it. There was a bit of a language barrier between us, which, added to my own dimness of mind and focus on football, failed to resolve a key issue. What I got out of the conversation is that Selvin is quite a personable chap and that he really likes cricket. I assumed the shirt dealt with college football, and never asked if there was anything on the back, which was covered by a backpack. I have since checked the University of Georgia football media guide and I don't think the Bulldogs have EVER beaten the Crimson Tide in football by a 29-28 score.
Furthermore, the seal at the bottom of the shirt (right) has nothing to do with either university as far as I can tell. This is puzzling. What match is the shirt talking about? Debate? Softball? Cricket?
If I see him again, I'll bother him again. Is a third encounter possible? Stay tuned!
By the way, we saw another interesting T-shirt on Sunday. The wording was in RUSSIAN. Sandy translated it as "I am an alcoholic from Moscow." If I run into that guy on a subway car, I will NOT stop him to ask him about that message. He was about 6 feet 8 inches tall. (In metric terms, that's about the height of 6.7 bottles of vodka.)

S&P MIGHT HAVE BUMPED THE CRANES UP: Did Standard & Poors' "outlook downgrade" have an impact on the cranes at the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal????? Not sure, but things took a minor turn for the worse yesterday, according to the Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator. The UPs beamed UP:
Date: April 20
Time: 9 a.m. (Singapore time)
Cranes Up (bad): 10
Cranes Down (good): 14
CRANES MISSING (neutral): 3

Monday, April 18, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011 (Singapore)

CHALLENGING THE NOTION OF "KIASU": The waiter who served us Friday night at the IndoChine restaurant on Club Street called on Saturday, very apologetically, to tell me that he had forgotten to include our second (gasp!) bottle of wine on the bill. He asked if I could stop by sometime and pay for that bottle. No problem. As anyone who has waited on tables knows, the cost of such a rogue bottle having would likely come out of the waiter's pay.
So I headed over there today about noon. He gave me a cup of coffee and we chatted. Ken (right) is Malaysian. We talked about risk and fear of failure. He said he thought too many people in Singapore--throughout Asia, actually--are too cautious, too unwilling to take a risk. He didn't use the word, but he was talking about kiasu, a fear of losing or fear of failure. He said he admired Caucasians because he thought they were more adventurous and more willing to take risks than Asians. Acknowledging that he is using a broad brush, he added that he thought Asians are not as open-minded. Searching for a word to describe it, he said, "Can I use the word skeptical?"
I thought "cautious" might be a better word.
Anyway, he said he has found an ambitious friend and they want to open a restaurant in Iloilo City, in the Philippines--a city of about a half million. Clearly, Ken is someone who is willing to take a risk--move from the "security" of Singapore and head to the hurly-burly of Iloilo. He likes the fact that the city has dozens of schools and universities. He wants to sell great, authentic Chinese food in his new venture, in a place where it is liked, and needed.
The prospect of opening a restaurant in Singapore, needless to say, is daunting. It will take a lot less capital in Iloilo. He said he liked what his grandfather told him: "Sometimes life is just like gambling. You will not win if you don't gamble at all."
Of course, one puzzling thing about all the discussion of Asians and aversion to risk is the tremendous interest in gambling among some, especially Chinese. So the "kiasu" discussions are not all that simple. It's complicated. And subtle.

WHEN THEY WORK, THEY REALLY WORK; WHEN THEY TAKE A BREAK, THEY REALLY TAKE A BREAK: On my way back to the apartment from Club Street, I passed about three dozen road workers taking a break in a shaded walkway. I think they are all working on the subway project along Cross Street. They were all lying down on the walkway, some on a blanket. All had their shoes off. This was a true, well-deserved break. No water-cooler chatter. No gossipy cliques. No dash to Starbucks. No "how 'bout those Sox?' discussions. Sandy and I have often noticed how active many of the construction and road workers are. We rarely see a shovel-leaner. So, they need a break and deserve a break and really know how to take a break.

CRANES SHOW SOME WILD SWINGS: Finally, I have straightened out the data base. Today's Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator shows that a near-record number are DOWN (in the working position) at the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal. The chart (right) shows some frenetic activity over the past couple of days. We'll keep an eye open for all of you:
Date: April 19
Time: 8 a.m. (Singapore time)
Cranes Up (bad): 5
Cranes Down (good): 21
CRANES MISSING (neutral): 1

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday, April 17, 2011 (Singapore)

IT WAS HOT, HOT, HOT: Sandy and I spent most of the afternoon going to Sentosa Island, which is parked about 500 meters (I've given up on conversions) off the main island of Singapore--very close to the city. It's very touristy and draws a huge crowd. Going there showed us where LOTS of people go for activity and entertainment here. It's billed as "Asia's favorite playground" (a casino helps that.) I certainly cannot speak to the validity of that claim, but it certainly is in the running as "Singapore's favorite playground."
We spotted a very neat "surfing" activity at the Wavehouse. The closeup (above) shows a young woman who was quite adept at "riding" the upward surge of water. The environment photo (right) shows the tight confines in which she operated. We watched her while eating a late lunch. Then we strolled along the beach before heading home, awash in sweat. It was REALLY HOT. According to this chart, at 3 p.m., the day's temperature peaked at 33 degrees and felt like 40 degrees. Hmmm. That doesn't sound convincing.
Let's convert it to fahrenheit. The temperature peaked at 91 and felt like 104 (fahrenheit). Now, that sounds hot.
As distracting as some of the activities are on the land, it's hard to ignore the omnipresent ships that lurk offshore (right). We saw lots of people on the beach and on the barstools and on the rides but saw very few actually IN THE WATER. I think I'd have jumped in, regardless of the unknown quality of the water. It was that hot. So, Sentosa might, indeed, be the "playground of Asia," but it's hard to square that with the fact that it's one of the great "shipping capitals of Asia" (and the world).

WHAT'S A WALL FOR BUT FOR LEANING?: Sandy and I finally used the tennis rackets we lugged here from the States.
We used a court that's perched on the eighth floor of our apartment building. As you can see from the photo above, she is surrounded by buildings, some of which have been creeping upward since we've been here. This is a BUSY place.
We played about an hour. Sandy caught me in a pose (left) that was vaguely reminiscent of a position I took during a lunch break on our 9-mile hike along the Great Wall (right).

Saturday, April 16, 2011 (Singapore)

WE'RE NOT BRAGGING OR ANYTHING...: Today was pretty mellow. Finished up laundry from the trip. We went to Cold Storage food market to restock the pantry. And, inspired by our travels, we embarked on a stir-fry adventure in our galley-type kitchen. The result (above) was quite tasty. (Think chicken, mushrooms, rice, chillies, onions, pepper, garlic; NO DONKEY.) And, in the privacy of our home, we broke out the chopsticks we had bought in Beijing. The metal sleeves on the end have an etching of a dragon that curls around the corner (shown here). We have six pair, so we can afford to lose some and/or invite people over.

BEIJING REVISITED: As a follow-up to our tramping through the Forbidden City a week ago, we decided to watch "The Last Emperor" (which lasts about 2 hours and 45 minutes, or could nicely fill the flight from Hanoi to Beijing). It was shot on location in China and was released in 1987. I "rented" it from iTunes, and it only took about 45 minutes to download (once I had deleted enough files to make room for this heavyweight). Sandy had never seen it. We liked it. Here's one memorable exchange:
Pu Yi (15 years old at the time): Is it true, Mr. Johnston, that many people out there have had their heads cut off?
Reginald Fleming Johnston: It is true, your majesty. Many heads have been chopped off. It does stop them thinking.
And then there's a line that I should have used on our drive up to the Great Wall: "Stop. The emperor will walk."
If you don't have time to see it all, here's the trailer:

AN UPDATE ON THE CRANE UPDATE: To those of you looking for investment advice, I have to apologize. I am unable to provide fresh, trending information for the Singapore Crane Index Limited Economic Indicator. Unfortunately, my data has been corrupted. I am working feverishly to rebuild the information matrix and hope to present up-to-date, high-quality material soon. It's amazing what happens in the home office when you go on a vacation. NOTE: You can find the index ONLY here. If you Google the phrase "Singapore Crane Index", the worldwide search takes you ONLY here (see image).