Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Birthday Wishes and Wheezes

Sunrise over Mount Sinai, Egypt (June 2005)

I officially turn 31 today. I'm at home nursing a chest infection (which has plagued me since Tokyo) and a resulting bout of athsma. Probably accounts for my rather introspective mood right now. Though I'm not at my physical best today, I do feel rather hopeful and content.

To those of you who have been sending me lovely birthday messages, my utmost thanks. It's made being cooped up at home in 30 degree heat on my hatch day more bearable.

In between the well-wishes I get a piece of sad news about an old friend that shakes me to the core. It makes me think of the ephemera of our daily lives. All I want to do is give my friend a huge hug and say this: I'm with you on your next journey. Count me in.

I've also this morning finished reading Carol Shield's The Stone Diaries which I bought two weeks ago. I can't praise it enough; the only down side of the book is that it kept making me want to stop reading and jot down the wonderful lines. To me, this book (unlike the wildly overrated The Sea) does offer true glimpses into a woman's soul, sometimes humorous, sometimes profound, but always truthful.

My favourite passage in the book captures exactly why I am compelled to write, and why I have always felt compelled to write. It asks the question, is there really such a thing as one narrative of your life? Or is it more a series of vignettes and perceptions (your own, your family's, your friends, and even those of little known acquaintences) that make up the blurred mosaic that is your own life story? An impressionist painting viewed from different angles perhaps?

Excerpt from The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields:

And the question arises: what is the story of a life? A chronicle of fact or a skillfully wrought impression? The bringing together of what she fears? Or the adding up of what has been off-handedly revealed, those tiny allotted increments of knowledge? She needs a quiet space in which to think about this immensity. And she needs someone - anyone - to listen.

So, I revel in the knowledge that even the quiet splendour of the sunrise experienced from the top of Mount Sinai forms one thread in the fabric of my life. A fleeting moment captured in my imagination, to re-surface and give cheer and direction when least expected.

I remember an E.M. Forster quote that inspired me years ago:

What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?

And so on this the first day of my 31st year, wheezing and all, I make a little promise to myself to not let moments of beauty and meaning pass me by. Taking my cue from the Japanese sensibilities that I fell in love with, I will try to infuse my life and imaginations with the rhythms and cadences of beauty and balance that exist around me. This is my own life story after all, and I can write it for myself.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Camel-san Diaries 3: Sakura, Old Friends and Sayonara

Sakura in bloom, Zojoji Temple (artistic shot courtesy of D)

Ten years on my friend
We are the same but older
Sakura in bloom

- Camel-san, 2007

This trip has been made very special as D and I spend a whole day with M (and his wife) after not seeing each other for ten years.

Ten years ago, I turned 21 in Dunedin, New Zealand, and flatted with M in the wonderful Toroa International House at the University of Otago (where D was a sub-warden and a mere 19 years old at the time and M and I were exchange students from our respective universities).

We did so much together during those six-months, grocery shopped, cooked (M makes a mean katsu-don), partied hard (where crazy Japanese drinking games M taught me will remain forever etched in memory, like it or not), played chess at cafes, exchanged languages, cultures and had very enlightening late night conversations about what each other was taught in high school about world war two.

Ten years may seem like a long time, but in reality the last decade has whizzed by for me. Sporadic email exchanges when we were both living in different countries (M worked in Taiwan for 4 years while I worked in New Zealand for 5), photos of our respective weddings, honeymoons, random party shots exchanged. Infrequent but intense bursts of communication.

So how do you capture what’s happened the last ten years of your life when you only have 12 hours to hang out together? Well, you don’t really. You go out, see some sights, experience amazing food, and in between all that, you exchange little nuggets of existence that somehow make up a rather complete picture of your life.

So this account is a tribute to my favourite city in the world and to friendships that weather time, change and geography. Kan pai, yam seng et vive les amis!

Like the perfect opening credits to a movie, D and I wake up early on Saturday to the full pastel glory of early cherry blossoms at neighbouring Zojoji temple. We are not the only ones, with many people getting their cameras out and clicking away excitedly. At nearby Shiba Park, a takopachi and beer booth has been set up to cater to the increasing number of groups of revelers who will come to numerous parks around the city to appreciate the coming of spring. D encapsulates what I feel when he exclaims, “How not to fall in love with a country that celebrates Spring this way?”

It’s true, Sakura fever has hit Tokyo, at Shibuya station, a TV screen shows live footage of the first sakura in bloom around the city, with location information. Locals brave the 7 degree night air to have nocturnal picnics to view the first blossoms.

National Park, Atsugi

M and wife come by to pick us up at the hotel all the way from where they live in Kanagawa Prefecture. M introduces us to his funky one-week old red Alfa Romeo, replete with up-to-the minute GPS tracking device with 3D map reading system and cute Japanese girl’s voice telling you how to get to your destination. D and I have a good laugh at the irony considering M is a respectable salary-man for one of the top Japanese car companies.

We brave the bumper to bumper traffic, with the original intention of heading to popular day-trip destination Hakone, where views of Mt Fuji can be glimpsed on a clear day. However, considering that the day is neither fine nor the traffic situation optimistic, we change our plans and head for nearer by Atsugi and its surrounding national park.

We seem to drive from highway to highway, then through many nameless suburbs, then smaller towns, and finally we hit the country side. No apartments in sight, just small houses with some farmland, forests, winding roads, and in the middle of it all, Zund Bar.

Zund Bar, in the middle of the foothills of Atsugi

From the outside, Zund Bar looks like a house – but the 30 or so people waiting in line to get into this ramen noodle house give us a clue as to its popularity and renown. The fact that there is an unobtrusive wicker basket with many fleece blankets tells me we’re in for a long wait. Indeed, we look at the self-penned reservations list outside the bar and we’re number 12 on the list.

We go for a short drive to kill time, then wait a bit more, visiting the adjacent traditional Japanese gift shop (man I dig those kimono toed socks)!

When our number is finally called, we enter the sliding doors, and what greets me is rather surreal. Here, in the middle of the rural foothills, is a bar that wouldn’t be out of place in central Tokyo. All stainless steel and chrome, minimalist crockery, designer light fixtures and the most excellent acid Jazz playing in the background, and you have Zund Bar. There are only 4 types of ramen you can order, with a smattering of side dishes and one dessert. But the food is so good, they don’t need an extensive menu.

The staff also look like they’ve stepped right out of Harajuku - blonde-streaked pigtails, glitter eye make-up, kawaii in every sense. In the loo, I see a recruitment ad for bar staff : 950 yen per hour. Not bad at all…

Late lunch over, we decide that traffic is just too bad to attempt driving back to the city, so we park at M and A’s apartment and walk to the station. M’s apartment is cosy and makes me think of getting rid of clutter in our own place. Suddenly, the idea of sleeping on tatami mats seems very appealing.

We catch the train from Kanagawa to Akihabara, where M shows us the way confidently to the top floor of an 8-storey store dedicated to anime and manga. I’m on a mission to find some souvenirs for friends at work – but the selection is overwhelming, and when I show the staff there my list of anime picks, they shake their head and show me to a rather miserable collection of Naruto t-shirts and one plastic head band (for a whopping 4000 yen). I decide against buying the head band but take a picture so my friends will know I tried.

It’s a Saturday night and it’s really interesting the different species of male that inhabit these stores. I feel like I’m in National Geographic video and at a watering hole at dusk. M totally goes with the vibe and asks all of us, “So, do you want to go to a Maid Café?”

Basement walkway to the Studio Cafe Strawberry, Akihabara

Ok. Before that moment, I had never heard of a Maid Café. I must admit it, at that moment, all sorts of thoughts were racing through my mind. Almost involuntarily, I go, “sure why not?” D is a lot more enthusiastic (men!).

So we head to Studio Cafe Strawberry. It’s located in the basement of a small building off a side street in Akihabara. A gorgeous young girl opens the door dressed in (no prizes here), a maid’s outfit. She points us to the spare tables in the café. M heads for a picnic table and bench set-up. The menu offers drinks, food and an interesting item for 300 yen called “Experience”. M asks the cute maid waitress what we get if we order “Experience” and she replies in Japanese, “Magic trick!” For 500 yen, customers (ladies only) can try on the numerous maid outfits and have a go in the café (!!). M and D ask me one too many times if I’m keen.

Two young men order an "experience" from the maid, in the form of magic tricks.

We decide to go for just drinks at the moment.

It’s only after we order our tea that the surroundings begin to register. The rest order cold Cokes and Ginger Ales, which come in stainless steel tumblers. My green tea comes in a plastic cup with rubber coaster. We’re all a bit perplexed. Then like a moment straight out of the Da Vinci Code, D hits the jackpot.

D: “It’s themed!”
All: “Eh?”
D: “Look, in the corner, those guys are sitting at a school table next to blackboard. Then there’s a doctor’s corner with eye chart.”

We look more closely at our table and realise there’s a simulated “gas lantern” and all our cups and crockery are of the outdoor picnic variety. Then we see that the wall next to our table is painted with blue sky and green fields. Ahhh… so. Man, I love Tokyo.

By the way, as the cafe charged an extra 500 yen for photos, the photos taken here are taken by M James Bond style.

A suit who walks in sits at what can only be described as a “lady’s parlour” theme and is served his tea in Royal Doulton. Then as if on cue, the two young guys in the corner order an “Experience” – one of the maids goes over, and chats with them cheerily while doing a series of magic tricks. The middle-aged loner with the comb-over in the table next to them, carries on, absorbed in his Gameboy.

Suit at the 'lady's parlour' interacting with maid

Good clean fun? I ask M. “Looks like,” is his reply.

We finish up our drinks, and as we walk back up the stairway to the real world, we see a large flat screen showing the public what is going on in the café in real-time. A plasma glimpse behind the looking glass if you will. Intrigued, we stare as middle-aged loner guy seizes on the opportunity to start up a conversation with one of the maids, his gameboy abandoned. I wonder if he’ll pay the 300 yen for the “Experience” or move to the doctor’s rooms.

All this role play makes for tough work, so we head back to Asakusa (which D still hasn’t seen) for a walk and dinner. Tempura is the order of the day, and I’m really relieved after my experiences with pig parts and fish mince.

We end of the night in Ginza at Cafe de Miyuki Kan, the glitziest French café for tea and cake. D and I look funereally at each other – could such a café exist in Singapore? If only… but it does make us want to book our next flight out here again.

Tea and cakes at Cafe de Miyuki Kan, Ginza

It’s 11:30pm and we rush to catch the late trains back to the hotel in time for our 7am shuttle the next morning. M and A see us through two changes of subway lines and we finally end up at the platform for the Oedo line back to our hotel. Trains come every six minutes in Tokyo and before I know it, Tokyo efficiency wins the day and our train’s arrival is signaled.

Hurried hugs, and promises that the next meeting will be sooner than the ten years just passed. More hugs, waves, air kisses and our train speeds us away, M and A very quickly disappearing from view. Sayonara in Sakura season. A farewell in a time of rebirth.

I’m wistful but not sad. I’m certain the next time we meet, we’ll be able to resume the easy banter and conversation that has always existed between us. Who knows? There just might be more gray hairs and a few screaming children in tow.

ps: Back in Singapore now. I wrote most of this on the plane which accounts for the rather epic length. Thank you readers, for making it thus far. I'm watching on telly now about the earthquake that struck Central Japan. So sad.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Camel-san Diaries 2: In which she tries to buy cooked fish

The Tsukiji Central Fish Market is a sprawling complex on the banks of the Sumida River. I arrive at 8:30am and almost get run over by a gnarly worker driving a small forklift-looking contraption. No Japanese politeness here, he just zooms past me with nary a backward glance, while I jump right back into a puddle. Eep, looking like an adventure already.

I don’t linger for long in the actual fish market - most of the action happens here around 5am - so I make my way to the Tsukiji Outer Market.

There's so much here I don't really know where to start. I pause for a while at a store selling knives - the storekeeper uses a duster to remove miniscule traces of dust from the already spotless implements. Then a nearby pottery store grabs my attention - I imagine thin slices of the freshest fish only caught this morning presented immaculately on these dishes, each a little work of art, soon to line the tummies of those who can afford it.

It's only been two days, but the Japanese attitude to food and dining is seeping into my consciousness. I find myself paying more attention to what I eat, the way it is presented, the freshness of each morsel I ingest. With this thought in mind, I follow advice from the Lonely Planet and go in search for the requisite sushi breakfast and according to them, "the freshest available probably anywhere in the world". With my ongoing cold still addling me, I decide to try my luck at finding some hot (cooked) food on the side as well.

I fail. Miserably.

After wandering up and down the many lanes of the Outer Market, I find a little cafe with only one spare seat. I take that as serendipity (it's as good a sign as any other) and it helps that there is a photo menu. So I order what to me looks like a plate of fresh sushi, with a side of smoked mackerel, with miso soup and pickles.

What I get looks like this:

I'm sure there's a much nicer name for the pink stuff at the top of the photo, but it was essentially chopped up raw tuna mince. The smoked mackerel occupied the tiny (but lovely) little blue receptacle on the far right. So, desperately channeling the best of Japanese dining sensibilities, I think about the presentation (well, this was a hole-in-the-wall eatery so not much to contemplate there), then about the sensation of the food in my mouth (bad choice: don't go there), then about the freshness of the produce (erk! even worse). I give up, turn Singaporean, eat up (my mum's voice from my childhood ringing in my ear "don't waste food! there are starving people in Africa!"), pay, and walk out with relief.

Hokay... so maybe I could've done better there. I suddenly feel a sharp pang of missing for my old friend J, who normally lives in Kyoto but who is on her way to Hawaii right now. (J if you are reading this, I truly wish you were here with me - I so need a Japanese-speaking friendly guide!)

So after walking around like a sotong (pun fully-intended), I make my way to Asakusa, home to Senso-Ji, Japan's oldest Buddhist temple (built in 628AD). It's bordered by a tremendous gate, Kaminarimon, which looks like a really popular meeting place for all and sundry. Beyond the gate lies Nakamise-dori, a lovely shopping street leading to the temple. Tradition and kitsch abound here. I am tempted but decide not to get a Hello Kitty lip balm (what irony! Lip balm from a silent cultural icon that has NO MOUTH! How's that for an anti-feminist statement?), but do fall prey to a lovely shop selling bags made from the unlikely pairing of army-green canvas and delicate kimono fabric.

I spend some time wandering the grounds of Senso-Ji and neighbouring shinto shrine Asakusa-Jinja. I love how two shrines dedicated to different religions can co-exist so comfortably side by side, each attracting its own pilgrims. I read in the Japan Hotel Association's Japan Guide that most Japanese have a tolerant attitude toward other religions as long as they are not too extreme. If only the rest of the world could adopt this attitude.

I spend the greater part of the afternoon here. Before entering the temples, I clean myself at a chozuya (a trough of water) using a long-stemmed ladle. The water is bitingly cold but leaves a refreshing tingle. I return to the hotel in the late afternoon for a nap (the cold has now turned into a cough, darnit).

Then at night, I head for the neon headiness of Shinjuku (while D is feted at what sounded like this amazing Japanese traditional club with groomed gardens in an old stone building). Apart from discovering the subterranean delights of the Isetan food hall (where bento boxes are so miraculously presented I scarcely dare to touch them), I chance upon the Muji store. Hello there!

It's morning in Tokyo now. I can't sleep 'cos the cough has now turned into wheezing. But I'm not complaining. If anywhere has the power and spirit to cure, I think it's right here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Camel-san Diaries 1: Tokyo impressions

Tokyo is an amazement. This is my first trip to the city and from the moment I land at the airport this morning, if I could sum up my impressions with one word, it would be this: Tokyo is thoughtful.

From the perfectly toasty toilet seat in our hotel room, to the note from the housekeeper asking you to help conserve the environment and think twice about having your towels washed everyday in aid of the environment (if you decide to skip a day’s cleaning, they reward you with a 1,000 yen voucher to be used in the hotel convenience store), to the way the space in the bathroom where your face is never ever fogs up, no matter how hot your shower.

This place makes you want to be a better person. D and I arrive at 7 am Tokyo time this morning, me really crabby from an uncomfortable plane ride due to the sudden onset of a cold and sore throat just as I board the plane. But as soon as I get off the plane, and feel the cold rush of the 4 degree Celsius air on my face, to the choruses of konnichi wa, from pretty much every single employee I pass at Narita, it’s really hard to maintain the grumpiness.

Our hotel is right at the foot of Tokyo Tower, the Eiffel Tower lookalike that attracts tourist buses like ants to a doughnut. It’s right next to Zojoji Temple, a shrine dating back to 1393 with a massive gate. After a long nap in the morning to shake off the cold, we emerge at noon to wander around the grounds of the temple.

It’s Spring Equinox, and a public holiday in Japan, so there are heaps of local tourists around as well, along with regular residents who spend the afternoon cleaning up the graves of their loved ones. The cityscape is dotted with immaculate parks and little picnic spots. Heaps of families have picnics – amazingly quiet, inclusive affairs that even a large group of 10 picnickers seem to form part of the peaceful landscape rather than an intrusive force.

D and I are inspired and go to a nearby combini to get some picnic food – I get sushi rolls and a giant waffle/sponge cake thing, D is lulled by superior packaging into buying what is essentially a white bread, chocolate spread sandwich. “But the bread looked so soft,” he lamented while watching me gorge ecstatically on my sushi and giant waffle.

The sun is out, the sky is clear blue, and everyone around is just doing their own thing and enjoying the day. Amazing. Despite embracing modernity, the Japanese just seem to me to be so in tune with nature. From the cycles of the seasons, to the elemental power of water and the deep resonance of stone. Every where I turn, I see, and feel, balance. It’s incredibly reassuring.

Anyway, eep, getting a tad philosophical there. So after our wander it was time for D and his work contingent to attend a function at the Australian Embassy. Left to my own devices and still slightly hampered by my darned cold, I go check out the nearby bright lights of Roppongi!

My mission is to find a fun place to dine alone. I find it by chance, when I veer off one of the many side alleys. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant doesn’t have an English name, nor a menu in English. I’m lured in by the cosy yellow lighting through small windows, and the fact that there is a grizzly old man in a spunky Adidas red windbreaker nursing a sake at the bar and watching the world go by. I go in, and point lamely at a random item on the menu whole time saying arigato, arigato. I hope that it’s something soupy, and I almost get my wish – I end up ordering a stew with pork and pickles. And by pork I mean all parts of the animal – yeesh! But it’s surprisingly yummy and I eat most of it. The three guys that run the bar all smile at me encouragingly; one is missing four front teeth. I wonder how and when that happened.

But the cold gets better of me, and as I stumble out into the cold after that hearty meal, the temperature has plunged back down to 4 degrees Celsius again. Thank god for my trusty leather jacket and boots. I navigate the trains, never once peeking at my Lonely Planet (yay! I leave my hapless backpacker persona behind) and walk back to the hotel.

There’s free wireless here. I have my laptop and I’m all cosy with a hot cup of roasted tea.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake early and go to the Tsukiji Central Fish Market. Over US$15.5 million of fish is sold here daily. And some of the merchants have been at the market for over 20 generations.

So who knows where the day will take me? I’m not fussed at all. I’m on the road and loving it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Paper Wedding Anniversary

It's March 19 tomorrow. Two years ago tomorrow, D and I got married in Glenfalloch Gardens in Dunedin, New Zealand. Since then, we've moved to a different continent, had our honeymoon backpacker-style through Egypt and Jordan, had another wedding in Singapore by the beach, changed jobs, eaten lots of cake and joined the gym (as a result of all that cake).

We planted a tree to the tunes of a bagpipe in Glenfalloch, a dogwood to be exact, as recommended by the resident gardener at Glenfalloch. Then D's Aunt J read an excerpt from Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. Two years later, the words still hold true.

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.

Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of eternal passion. That is just being "in love", which any fool can do.

Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those that truly love, have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from the branches, they find that they are one tree, and not two.

So this post is dedicated to my long-suffering D, and to those of you who are grappling with the quarks and quasars of love, friendship and everything in between.

(Note: these beautiful photos were taken by my talented brother-in-law, L, thanks so much! It means so much to have these photos to remember our day by.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Queues, milestones and hairy decisions

What an epic day.

Today, D and I were officially inducted into the Singapore guidebook to life. We decided rather spontaneously to put our names in for a ballot for a new HDB (read: government-subsidised) apartment near the central city in Singapore. As of this moment, 729 applications have been received for 106 prized apartments.

We channeled Frodo and Sam as we prepared for our journey of unknown proportions to HDB Hub, to submit our application in person. Water bottle: check, full breakfast: check, good book: check, ipod: check, wad of documentation: check, sudoku puzzle book: check.

We got to the offices at 9am only to be faced with an orderly system with no queues. No sullen clerks telling us to fill in multiple forms in different colours. It was completely simple and pain-free! Man, I love Singapore.

But I was still in for a shock though. Just as I was signing on the dotted line, D ambles up to me saying "Guess what? I'm the head of the house!" This is our ensuing conversation:

Me: Eh? But I'm the principal applicant! (only Singaporean citizens can be principal applicants, you see. Kiwi permanent residents can only be the secondary applicant.)
D: Yeah, but as the husband, I'm the head of the house!
Me: Oh yeah?
D: Yeah, which means the ethnic quota comes under me.
Me (very interested now): Really?
D: Yeah, so instead of us applying under "Chinese", we are now officially classified as "Other".
Me (weakly): Other?

This is the first time I've been labelled an "other" in my own country. Last time I checked, my ancestors hailed from a village in Guangzhou called Sek Long or Stone Dragon, and my second language was Mandarin under Singaporean education policy. Hmm, ok... this may take some time getting used to. But again, as in all things Singaporean, I soon became peckish and my grapplings with identity and culture were overcome with my desire to have Ya Kun kaya toast.

Anyway, so we put in our application (fingers crossed: ballot takes place in May!) and as soon as we emerge from HDB Hub, we see massive queues of unformed students. All shapes and sizes, all so young!

Turns out Mediacorp was holding auditions for Campus Superstar. Had to take my hat off to these kids - they queued up in the open for hours for a few seconds in front of the judges. We hung around for a while, and got to see some elated, talented students qualify for the second round.

Then, it was one major milestone in life to another. More specifically, the billion dollar question that has been plaguing me of late. To perm or not to perm.

My one and only perm took place when perming technology gave just about everyone Maggi Mee curls and the wet look. Needless to say, not the best of times and I have a stack of photos (and a host of lost dates) to show for it. So since then, there's been this huge perm phobia. But in the spirit of major life events today, I decided to go for a ceramic perm.

Here's the last picture of me taken with straight hair (whilst hanging out with D and Dean last weekend).

Here's the new hair! I've got... more of it! Woo hoo. I can do stuff with it besides wash it and let it dry and erm, put my sunnies in it. So even if we don't win the ballot, at least I've won the war against bad perms. Fair trade, I say!

Am now feeling wondrously renewed, ready to take on my virgin trip to Tokyo (leaving Tuesday night!) and to usher in my 31st year. Wonderful what a trip to the hairdressers can do to a woman's mood.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Oddest Book Title of 2007

Since we're on the topic of books, and my weekly poll is about the unlikely, thought this was a fitting Thursday night post... Got this off the New Zealand Herald website.


Thebookseller.com is running its annual poll to determine which of six splendidly-titled books should be named the oddest title of 2007.

Here's the shortlist that caught the eye of publishers, booksellers and librarians across the world:

1. Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan.

2. How Green Were the Nazis?

3. D. Di Mascio's Delicious Ice Cream. D. Di Mascio of Coventry: An Ice Cream Company of Repute, with an Interesting and Varied Fleet of Ice Cream Vans.

4. The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification.

5. Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium.

6. Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.


My vote has to go Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan. How could you not buy a book that shouts out at you in this subliminal way? If I saw this in Kinokuniya, confirmed would buy one!!

On a separate note, just got back from another brisk walk up Telok Blangah Hill. D and I reached the top only to be faced with MY HAPPIEST SIGHT OF 2007... four young persons at the top of Telok Blangah Hill, sitting under the night sky, in the light of of a streetlamp, playing... wait for this... Taboo!!!! ARGH! ERK!

How many ridiculously fabulous hall nights spent over this? Will never live down the night, when in the midst of a Taboo party, old friend N says in his deliciously frou-frou French accent, "Oh Doe-rah, you throw the best partehs..." a la Ferrero Rocher "at the Ambassador's party" ad... Migod... 10 years ago... unbelievable...

Calling all board games lovers in Singapore, where are you? I'm in severe withdrawal and need to organise a Cranium/Articulate/Balderdash/Trivial Pursuit/or heck even Scrabble night!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

An extraordinary little conversation

I went for a walk at lunch today to the loveliest tucked-away bookshop near my work. It's called Books Actually (along Telok Ayer St, on the second floor of a shophouse) and is a literary haven - just two walls lined with books, but each title chosen carefully.

I emerged $17.50 poorer, but armed with Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Have never read a novel by her before but as I sat down to my regular sandwich at my favourite quiet, breezy cafe right round the corner from work, I felt like I was miles away and never happier.

Had a most unexpected and fabulous conversation with E, the owner of the cafe.

E: "Ooh, what are you reading? You into classics too?"
Me: "Reading a Carol Shields novel. Never read her before."
E: "Oh I'm not familiar either. I like Somerset Maugham myself."
Me: "Oooh! I watched The Painted Veil - super fantastic!"
E: "Have you read it? I was in love with the bacteriologist."
Me (slightly ashamed): "I've never read any Maugham. But I did watch the movie, heh."
E: "I usually borrow my books from the library, but the special ones, I buy. Like I have a first edition of Totto-Chan"
Me (squealing by this time): "Omigod! I just read Totto-Chan a couple of months ago for the first time. I loved it! I loved it!"
E (sagely): "I also have a 1934 edition of the Karma Sutra"
Me: "errrr. cool?"
E (serving customer a hot dog while talking to me): "Yes, very."
Me (looking at watch): "Darn gotta go back to work. Great talking to you E."
E: "Yeah, go well. Tell me how the book goes."

Yay! My favourite little cafe, and the owner reads! I'm so going to be a regular.

So maybe it's where I am right now in my life, but The Stone Diaries starts out with a poem that just rings true to me. It's from "The Grandmother Cycle" by Judith Downing. The words were ringing in my head as I walked back to work. And it made me think that even the most ordinary life has elements of the extraordinary in it.

nothing she did
or said

was quite
what she meant

but still her life
could be called a monument

shaped in a slant
of available light

and set to the movement
of possible music

Camel Poll #2: Your Favourite Comedies Ever!

Hokay, thanks to all who voted. 50 votes were cast and the results are in!

Your favourite comedies ever, in order...

1. Little Britain
2. The Simpsons
3. Mind Your Language
4. Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister
5. The Office (BBC) - tie
'Allo 'Allo - tie
6. Seinfeld - tie
Frasier - tie
7. Friends
8. The Family Guy

Woo hoo! Do you agree with the choice?

"yes but no but yes but no but"

Monday, March 12, 2007

Drown yourself in The Sea

Aiyoh. I just finished reading yet another disappointing Booker prize winner. First, it was the "I-wanna-be-the-new Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy" Inheritance of Loss, then more recently, wannabe Virginia Woolf post-modernist schmodernist The Sea.

The Sea got massive accolades. Very important people called it a very important book, saying that John Banville could see into the modern soul. Gimme a break lah! Loosely summarised without giving away any spoilers, The Sea is the story of an aging man getting over the recent loss of his wife to cancer. He is lured back to the seaside town that he used to holiday at as a child, and the reader then spends a few hundred pages discovering the events of his childhood that have left an indelible mark on him and have shaped his adulthood. There is a perfunctory twist in the end, and have I said again how I think he tries to write like Virginia Woolf?

I don't know. Maybe I read it when I was in the wrong mood, but I really had no patience for this book. The language was completely distracting, and self-aware. I have no issue with weird grammar and sentence construction as a narrative device (e.g. E. Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, anything by Peter Carey) but it has to have a point y'know? I just felt that The Sea was a rather indulgent exercise by an obviously gifted wordsmith. But alter my perspective of the world it did not,

But then again, I tend to prefer the Booker Prize nominees to the winners themselves. Anyway, I need new reading material. Any recommendations anyone? In the meantime, think I'll work my way through all the Asterix and Obelix comics again. Feel the need for some good historical fiction.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A weekend of firsts...

Today starts like most weekend mornings of late, with a brisk walk up a hill. It's a perfect morning for walking, dry with a gentle breeze. The views from the top of Mt Faber are fabulous, and I can see the street where we live and the city beyond. I'm proud of myself too, having dragged myself out of bed early this morning despite having two late nights in a row. So far, am keeping up my "here's to a healthier 2007" routine. woo hoo!

It's also a weekend of firsts for me.

1. I experience the delights of Botak Jones for the first time last night with C & A. Just look at that triple burger - strategically placed next to C's Corona for scale.

2. Then I play Singstar on Playstation for the first time too. I don't fare as well as I'd hoped (but this being my virgin try I don't fret), and my rendition of Keane's Everybody's Changing, and Franz Ferdinand's Do You Want To leave much to be desired. A beats me hands down. But I do hold my own on Erasure's Respect, I'm rather embarassed to admit, haha! C amazes me by doing a flawless version of Ice Ice Baby... scary... but then, she always was the queen of lyrics.

3. I watch one of the most violent (stylised though) movies ever, screen version of Frank Miller's 300 (about the band of 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas who hold the evil invading Persian army at bay), AND manage to watch the whole movie without covering my eyes. It was pretty sublime, felt like the marriage of a renaissance fresco and an epic atrium rock concert. Whole thing was absolutely beautiful. Not forgetting the six-packs on pretty much every single male character. David Wenham (Faramir in Lord of the Rings, aiieee) and Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera, Dear Frankie) provided much appreciated visual stimulation too, ahem.

4. OK, this isn't really a first, but more like a complete rarity. I cook a meal with NO carbs for dinner tonight. It all had to do with our day with Dean today, where he starts talking about preventing colorectal cancer (I swear, Dean you should be a high-end promoter of organic products, confirm can make a lot of money one). Anyway, so I get paranoid and decide to make the healthiest dinner I can think of at the time. Only unhealthy element is the German bratwurst sausage (but even then, I dry fried it - no oil!). So we had a huge serving each of steamed broccoli and raw capsicum with organic roasted tomato salsa, and two sausages each, heh.

So overall, what a wholesome way to end the weekend. Oh and I haven't even started yet on husband D winning best-dressed guy in his office D&D last night - he went in a most regal kurta, replete with pashmina and individualised ruby red buttons and mock-leather sandals. All courtesy of fashion guru Dean who should really get his own "what not to wear" show on telly. Honestly, would beat a lot of the rubbish being aired on local TV right now.

Anyway, so I love my Sundays and today was no different. It's still not over yet though. I shall not get plagued by the Sunday night blues. Still have a few more precious hours before the work machine starts again... bleah... in the meantime, will put my feet up, and channel some tropical spa vibes right here in our little oasis in Singapore.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Conversations, a few drinks and a question

A couple of us stayed behind after work on Friday for a chill out session over wine, cake and chocolate (actualy there was so much cake we never got round to the chocolate). It was also a bit of a little birthday thing for us March birthday bunnies. Can't believe I'm almost one full year into my 30s. And I still find myself asking what I'm going to do when I grow up.

So last night was really fun, and got me thinking, as I caught the last train back, about what to me was good conversation. 'Cos there certainly was a lot of that going on last night. Anyway, bearing in mind the ol brain was slightly addled by red wine, here's what I thought it came down to:

1. An openess to whimsy: that is, an ability to discuss topics or issues beyond a literal level. For example, sustaining a full-blown debate around who would be the last (wo)man standing if the entire office was caught in an airplane disaster a la the harrowing movie Alive. It started me thinking also about how I felt immediately after watching Titanic, that I didn't have the upper arm strength to survive in a scenario like that, i.e. no way could I cling on to a railing or a piece of flotsam even if my life depended on it. I mean, I used to fail my inclined flex arm hang every year during physical fitness test time! Anyway, I'm so going to my pump class tomorrow mornning.

2. Seeing humour in the important and the inane: Can anything be funny? Well, aside from two very hairy naked men wrestling in Borat, genocide and child pornography, most other things can be taken the piss of? Ok so I'm not so sure it's as simplistic as that. But it certainly helps if people can generally see the lighter side of things. I'm a fan of the facetious, the inane - as through these apparent inconsequential mundanities, can the gravity of life sometimes be glimpsed.

3. Different perspectives, imagination, and an open mind: Something that I've been grappling with since moving back to this little red dot. I moved from New Zealand, a land of readers and of books, with a smaller population than Singapore, but with an impressive plethora of authors, playwrights, Oscar winners and commentators. I know it's not fair to compare, but from a place where book clubs and the library were a regular part of people's lives, Singapore seems to me to have foregone the simple pleasures for the immediate gratification of multi-media. So we can blame it on the heat and the lack of dark winter nights. But this has left a bit of a gaping hole in the national imagination I think. Anyway, I still get really happy when I find me some good conversation in Singapore - think I'm really blessed to be surrounded by some pretty cool individuals who make life in uniquely Singapore that much more bearable!

4. Friends:
So even if your views differ, or if no one has anything meaningful to say, you can still go out for supper and drinks after. Or, in the case of last Saturday's Beviamo expedition with D and D, even if the pneumatic drills (so oft-heard in Singapore) start pounding away, and you can't hear yourself think, let alone talk, you can just smile grimly and stuff your face with cake!

Which brings me to the question. D sent this to me on International Women's Day on Thursday. It's essential reading for any man. He proudly declared to me that he got the answer right. Ah, bless his soul, he's been trained well, hah! The excerpt below was apparently inspired by Chaucer's The Wife of Bath.

Young King Arthur was ambushed and imprisoned by the monarch of a neighboring kingdom. The monarch could have killed him but was moved by Arthur's youth and ideals. So, the monarch offered him his freedom, as long as he could answer a very difficult question. Arthur would have a year to figure out the answer and, if after a year, he still had no answer, he would be put to death.

The question? What do women really want? Such a question would perplex even the most knowledgeable man, and to young Arthur, it seemed an impossible query. But, since it was better than death, he accepted the monarch's proposition to have an answer by year's end.

He returned to his kingdom and began to poll everyone: the princess, the priests, the wise men and even the court jester. He spoke with everyone, but no one could give him a satisfactory answer.

Many people advised him to consult the old witch, for only she would have the answer.

But the price would be high; as the witch was famous throughout the kingdom for the exorbitant prices she charged.

The last day of the year arrived and Arthur had no choice but to talk to the witch. She agreed to answer the question, but he would have to agree to her price first.

The old witch wanted to marry Sir Lancelot, the most noble of the Knights of the Round Table and Arthur's closest friend!

Young Arthur was horrified. She was hunchbacked and hideous, had only one tooth, smelled like sewage, made obscene noises, etc He had never encountered such a repugnant creature in all his life.
He refused to force his friend to marry her and endure such a terrible burden; but Lancelot, learning of the proposal, spoke with Arthur.

He said nothing was too big of a sacrifice compared to Arthur's life and the preservation of the Round Table.

Hence, a wedding was proclaimed and the witch answered Arthur's question thus:

What a woman really wants, she answered... is to be in charge of her own life.

Everyone in the kingdom instantly knew that the witch had uttered a great truth and that Arthur's life would be spared.

And so it was, the neighboring monarch granted Arthur his freedom and Lancelot and the witch had a wonderful wedding.

The honeymoon hour approached and Lancelot, steeling himself for a horrific experience, entered the bedroom. But, what a sight awaited him. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen lay before him on the bed. The astounded Lancelot asked what had happened

The beauty replied that since he had been so kind to her when she appeared as a witch, she would henceforth, be her horrible deformed self only half the time and the beautiful maiden the other half.

Which would he prefer? Beautiful during the day... or night?

Lancelot pondered the predicament. During the day, a beautiful woman to show off to his friends, but at night, in the privacy of his castle, an old witch? Or, would he prefer having a hideous witch during the day, but by night, a beautiful woman for him to enjoy wondrous intimate moments?

What would YOU do?

What Lancelot chose is below. BUT... make YOUR choice before you scroll down below. OKAY?

Noble Lancelot said that he would allow HER to make the choice herself.

Upon hearing this, she announced that she would be beautiful all the time because he had respected her enough to let her be in charge of her own life.

Now... what is the moral to this story?

The moral is...
If you don't let a woman have her own way...
Things are going to get ugly.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

Though Singapore may have four and a half million people squished into a landmass smaller than New Zealand's Lake Taupo, you can still find pockets of quiet, lonely space.

It's 8:30pm in the evening, after a long day at work. Cue tremendous tropical downpour. D and I seek shelter and dinner at Singapore's largest mall (which is also closest to our home and has now become our local neighbourhood hangout), teeming with life and glazed-eyed shoppers. We grab a bus back home just as the rain is stopping. Get into our walking gear, and head out into the cool darkness up Telok Blangah Hill.

It's beautiful. Droplets of water rhythmically splash against us from the trees above. The ground still steaming from the cool rain sizzling on sun-warmed tarmac. Cicadas out in full orchestral force. We walk half an hour without seeing anyone. A regular miracle in Singapore.

If I were to close my eyes, I could be anywhere and nowhere, but this night, I transcend this crazy, tremulous island, to a half-remembered poem of old.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I feel the earth move...

Singapore was shaken by two tremors today.

The first occurred just before lunch as I was talking to a rather important corporate stakeholder. We were just wrapping up our conversation when I suddenly saw my desk sway, and the white board next to me rattle. Then Leafy, my trusty desk plant started swaying to and fro. I felt this familiar sick sensation in the pit of my stomach, which put me right back that spring morning in Wellington, when just as I was having my cereal in front of the morning telly, I felt the exact same vibrations.

I remember that morning, smiling at D in relief when the tremors were over, and just as said smile was beginning to fade on my lips, the real shakes began. It was one of the most frightening moments in my life. Our Wellington apartment, at the top of Cuba St was swanky, new and earthquake proof, i.e. it swayed. A lot. Our CDs were flung out like in a poltergeist movie, our paintings fell over and D and I dove for cover. My cereal bowl remaining miraculously upright. When it was over, I sat on the couch shaking in fright and burst into tears. It was only after when I was more collected and at work that I realised I had experienced my first major earthquake.

So back to this morning. The tremors went for about 10 (for me, very long) seconds. I looked at my colleagues D and L in alarm. All of us not really sure what had just happened. Construction maybe? But this was unlike anything we'd ever felt. I sort of went a bit manic, put on my walking shoes, and headed out the door before anyone could say anything!

What I saw downstairs was even more surreal. Masses of office workers evacuated from their office buildings, all looking around, up, down, at the sky - it was like a scene from some alien disaster movie. Almost expected some bespectacled suits to start running being chased by malevolent tentacled things!

But in the spirit of all things Singaporean, anxiety and panicked glances gave way quickly to hunger pangs. Most of the evacuees slouched off for early lunch breaks, whilst others hung around taking photos on their mobiles. I was no different, taking photos while waiting for my hot dog to be prepared no less!

Got back to work, and within about an hour the second tremor struck. NZ earthquake behaviour took over and I put on my sturdy shoes ready to dive under my desk.

That's it. I'm bringing my worn out Nikes tomorrow and a blanket. Also some water and cans of tuna.

And my sudoku puzzle book, a pencil and torchlight.

While I'm blogging here, over in the epicentre of the quake in Indonesia, more than 70 people have lost their lives. It's so awful to think how terrifying it must be for the people who have suffered through it. And sadder yet to think about all the calamities that have befallen the country.

Made me think of a Hermann Melville quote I found recently for a speech my boss was giving. "We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibres, our actions run as causes and return to us as results."

How true. Right this minute, I'm going to be a better person. I'm going to be more patient, more compassionate, and appreciate the little things. Like a good sleep. And a quiet read before the lights go out.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

It's Super Ilegal to be this good

Tonight, I did my bit for local music and went down to the opening night of the NUS Arts Festival featuring Electrico. But the real reason I was there was to support Ian, whose band Super Illegals was the opening act.

And boy was it good.

Didn't know what to expect, and was just looking forward to some laid back after-work chill time with husband D, D and L (and S and friend whom we met up with after), but music was the highlight of the night.

Super Illegals rocked. They channelled some major Radiohead vibes and loved the ambient guitar stuff they did. The stage was big, but they weren't dwarfed. Not even when D screamed out "We love you Ian but come back to work on Monday to do sai kang (shit work basically, hah)!"

That's I on the right. On stage, he was like Willy Wonka (with his white-rimmed glasses) meets Blur on speed. He rocked, we all screamed.

Super Illegals came on, warmed the crowd up with a huge dose of originality and spunk. Then it was over and lights came on and were dimmed again and the crowd waited in anticipation for the main act of the night.

During the 5 minute wait, D and L started regaling me with stories of their dramatic work day. Suffice to say it made my day (and the trials in my job) look like an episode of The Cosby Show while theirs was a mission to Mordor, to the rim of Mount Doom, complete with Gollum and Grima Wormtongue action figures thrown in! I would never have believed any of what they said could be possible had I not previously lived through it myself!

Thank goodness for the mind-numbing magic of great music. So back to Electrico. They were amazing. Husband D, with his savvy music taste, turned to me half way saying "they're really good! why are they so good?" which earned him a thwock on the ear. Of course they are good! So what if they're local, dammit!

I'd only heard a few of their more radio friendly tunes previously, but Electrico is immensely watchable. They have great chemistry on stage, they're tight, and seem to be really attuned to each other. Their music was a throw back to The Smiths, Depeche Mode, a bit of Radiohead, with a definite unique twist. They did a superb version of "Tainted Love" by the way, got the whole place in a tizz.

They ended of the night with an electrifying rendition of a new song, which lead singer David Tan said was going to send them off on their tour of the USA. Electrico inspired and I think made all watching proud to be right there. You were never conscious that you were watching a local band, you just knew you were witnessing great music.

We're not made in the USA
But you got what you paid for anyway
And we'll rock and roll just the way you do
With the red and the white but without the blue.

Great night, and even better cos we ended of with supper at old hangout Fong Seng. Maggi Mee Goreng and Teh O Limau Ice. PERFECT.