Archives for category: Singapore

glittery horse

Yes it’s the Chinese Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival and it is celebrated across this region with bells on starting on January 31st for fifteen days. The date changes each year depending on when the second moon after the winter solstice occurs. There is something very poetic sounding about that although I’m sure any astro-physicists reading (unlikely) are putting their heads in their hands in quiet despair.

Welcome to the Year of the Horse.

Some of the decorations outside the flash department stores are all a bit bling but we decided to go into Chinatown and see the celebrations up close and personal. Aside from the crowds (oh my word!) it was a huge dose of tradition slamming into modern culture. It does take your breath away. The horses in Chinatown are cleverly wired in the air and although they look striking in the daylight…

daylight horses

…as the sun went down they are lit so cleverly and sway in the breeze and they look like they are galloping down the street.

at night

Then it was less about the poetry and more about the celebration in Chinatown and it was good fun.

chinese lanterns

everything red

new year barrels

I was also told that I was born in the unluckiest year of the century so far. When a friend of mine – also born in the same year – married, his future wife’s family had to make more offerings at the temple to try and counterbalance the bad luck his birth year would bring. So there you go. The jury is out whether that explains a lot or proves it is nonsense.

There’s a lot of red in these photos and the condo here is covered with red banners and lanterns and when the kids asked, it was time to find out. Here, as always, is my version of the myth.

This time it is written for Jacob, because he likes stories.

Once upon a time there was a fishing village in China that was surrounded on one side by a fierce sea and on the other, by a huge mountain. Every year, on the second moon of the winter solstice a terrifying monster, Nian, would come to the village and destroy their crops, take their hard earned fish and steal their children. Every year, without exception he would come and he was too strong to fight; too terrifying to even look at. He had the head of a lion and the body of a bull and he was so big that even the strongest of the villagers cowered in fear. On the eve of Spring, the villager would hurriedly pack their belongings and try to find a safe place to hide. They were never sure if he would come from the mountains or appear suddenly from the sea.

One year, as people hurriedly packed and panicked, an old monk called Hongjun Laozu came to the village. But no one had the time to offer him food to eat or a place to rest. “We must hurry!” they said as they pushed past him. Eventually an old woman took pity on the monk and stopped her packing and helped the monk to rest. As he sat there he chuckled to himself and said to the old woman “Why are they running from old Nian?” They should be celebrating the New Year”. And so he told the old woman how to fight Nian. The old woman sat next to the monk and they both enjoyed their meal with all the villagers shaking their heads in disbelief.

That night, the villagers watched Nian come down the mountain and approach the house of the old woman. Suddenly, red lanterns lighted up the house until it looked like it was on fire and the loud crack of firecrackers could be heard across the sea. Nian reared up in fear. As the lanterns burnt the sky red Nian fled to the mountains. As the villagers came back, the monk told them that Nian feared three things – the colour red, fire and noise. Every year since, to keep Nian away, each family lights red lanterns and sets off firecrackers.

There is so much more to say about the Spring Festival – about the ritual spring cleaning that is embraced across much of this part of Asia, about the traditions for each of the fifteen days and about how in another version of the myth it was actually the fact that Honjun Laozu was wearing red underpants – that he flashed at Nian – that scared him away. But it is late and I still have to do my own spring cleaning before all the mops and brooms must be put aside on New Year’s Day. You must not sweep away your good luck as the New Year dawns.

(Three days left, I’d better get a wriggle on).

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Well here we are in 2014. Hello to you and goodbye to 2013; it was quite a year.

For us 2013 started on a plane on our first trip to Singapore as a family. Ned was a complete monster on our maiden flight and I can remember thinking we would have to stay in Singapore because I’m not doing this again. By the time we moved out here in the early summer the kids and I had racked up 5 of those long haul flights and were all still speaking to each other.

2013 was a year of change; and change is good isn’t it?

This is not going to be a post about how wonderful it is to get out of your comfort zone.

We have had time on our hands to think about what makes us happy and what makes us tick and every conversation we have about where we want to be always takes us back to the same place; and that place is home.

What I’ve learnt in 2013 is that home for me is a much wider space than the four walls that keep the four of us safe at night. For me home is a much bigger deal, in fact it’s a HUGE deal. My dad often says we have two homes as I extend my sense of home to their house as well. We are always there. I’m also lucky that many of my oldest friends live so close to my parents giving me the very best of two worlds. My parents have a welcoming home like no other. I want more than anything to create my version for our children.

My favourite thing in the world is wandering around our garden with a cup of coffee on my own making plans – things to see, friends to invite over, jobs to do. It’s a family joke that no plant stays in the same place in the garden as over time you see how the light filters and the shadows fall, and the first place is never quite the right place. When we moved into our house in Kent it was rundown beyond belief. It was filthy and unloved. The garden was as diseased as the house and it took me the four years we lived there to coax it back to life. Once I’d managed it we spent so many happy times sitting outside with our family and friends. The home I miss is full to busting. Home here in comparison is a lonely place.

set table for dinner

garden

What we have embraced instead as ex-pats is a culture that I don’t like (or understand) very much. An ex-pat life makes people very brittle and surprisingly fragile, although this is often masked by generally quite appalling lapses in social niceties. My experiences with ex-pat women will be a separate blog post – worth waiting for! Suffice to say here that we are all different and what makes me tick does not make the ex-pat lady tick. I don’t have much spare cash so am neither groomed nor glossy. I don’t want to eat out all the time, I don’t want to shop. I would like to do yoga, go running, hang out with my friends drinking coffee but for me these things are accessories to a busy life; they are not ‘life’.

Without this wider sense of home you end up on a constant promenade. The ex-pat life is constantly moving and shifting as everyone tries to fill the void. Much like those plants in my garden at home everyone is trying to find their right spot in the world. We have just realised that we were in our right spot all along.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some friends for life on the Little Red Dot of Singapore and these friends make me laugh a lot but I am ready to go home now, we all are. It’s been an incredible adventure. The best gift this Christmas we have given Millie and Ned is their lack of fear of the world, and the world can seem a scary place. We have no doubts at all that Ned will travel when he’s older. He is wild; a chameleon that can fit in wherever he goes and with whoever he is with. Millie is a home body. She is adored by everyone on the condo for her chatterbox ways (never letting a language barrier deter her) but she never likes to stray like Ned. She, like me, wants to put down her roots and not be moved again. Dom has rediscovered his love of running while we have been in Singapore. He spends his quiet time looking at trail runs that he can do at home in Kent where it will be him and the odd early morning dog walker unlike in Singapore where each path is already crowded. He fuels our idea of home even further with his deep love of countryside and coast. Dom reminds us about how beautiful and blessed we are with what surrounds our home – these are the fields through the gate in our garden.

fields behind the house

And I am glad he took us on this asian road trip; he is our true adventurer. Millie summed it up in her own way ‘Singapore has been a really great long holiday, and we’re really lucky aren’t we, but I’d like to go home now and see granny and grandad’. And that’s what we are going to do.

For all my friends at home that read my blog, we will see you very soon. Much love to all of you in my virtual space and a very Happy New Year.

waterpotplant

It’s rainy season. With bells on. It is marginally, fractionally, just a smidge cooler though after a blustery shower which makes wandering around a little less hot and bothersome. In fact, I actually felt a bit chilly the other day. Saying that though, today is a scorcher!

Now, Minx is saying that she isn’t getting a feel of Singapore from the photos I am sending home. I should point out that we lived out here as a family 40 years ago and the Singapore my mother loves so much is gone. Maybe that is why I spend so much time looking for ‘old’ Singapore, perhaps it is some early childhood memory I’m trying to find.

This photo perfectly sums up the change. Gentrification is everywhere. I don’t mind that, I just wish it always didn’t all look the same. I wonder if these neighbours speak. I doubt it somewhow.

old and new

Shopping malls are another part of Singapore life – the largest one I have ever been to in my life is called Vivo City at Harbourfront. It is absolutely enormous. It’s the kind of place that I go to thinking ‘Let’s go to Vivo City, all the shops are in one place, brilliant idea’. Then you get there and realise that the shop you want is 5 escalators and about 2km away from the entrance. Bleugh. The last time we went there Dom was going up an escalator in a daydream and looked at the brushes at the side of the step bit. You know the ones I mean – the bristles that stop any rubbish getting stuck in the sides. Dom thought ‘I wonder if that feels nice if you brush your foot against the bristles’. Of course the pharmacist is MILES away from where you are as your foot gets sliced and bleeds everywhere…. Millie rightly said ‘You won’t do that again, will you daddy!’

Away from the malls though, if you look down side streets you can still see old shophouses open for business. How long they will survive? Who knows. I love them. On a hot (or rainy day) you can walk under the archways keeping cool in the shade.

hardware store

greengrocers

I also want to find the painters that, when refurbishing yet another row of shophouses into posh residences, didn’t paint over this. So grateful.

lucky book store

lucky book store close up

In my quest for space, we took the kids around Macritchie Resevoir. I wonder how much of this has been recently man-made or if it has been preserved as part of Singapore heritage? The following are some pics from there. Hard to believe this is in the middle of Singapore. I am going to point out though that it took a great deal of patience (which I deeply lack) to take pictures without hordes of people in it. The walkers, families, trail runners and meanderers make this a less restful place than it looks…

view from tree top walk

monkey

macritchie resevoir

Singapore now. Singapore then.

Time has been the order of the day this last week or two – I seem to lose it, never have enough of it, or shamefully, waste it. It left me pondering the following…

On Tuesday I had a lovely lazy morning with my friend from Kent, Liz, in Plaza Singapura. This mall contains a Japanese Yen shop, at home it’s a pound shop, so can only imagine it’s called a dollar shop in the States! Now I am not a shopper at all but even I couldn’t leave the pink mango slicer behind. Liz went off and as I had some time to kill before picking the kids up I bought some lunch and headed outside. So, I’m sitting reading and minding my own business when a young lady comes over and says ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes’, I reply, ‘it’s half past one’. She then sits down next to me and I carry on reading. About 5 minutes later she gets up VERY dramatically and clearly quite cross and says ‘I have to go now!’ ‘Ummmm’. Clearly she wanted to know if I had ‘time’, not ‘the time’! Sigh.

As I told Dom later that evening he reminded me of my best incident of confused English ever. Many moons ago, when Dom and I first met, I shared a flat in South London with my marvellous friend Jill. We lived in Tooting; it was a complete cultural carnival which made it very vibrant and a great place to live. The local shop was a ‘Costcutter’ where you could honestly find anything from plantains through to chickpea flour. I was in there buying something very ordinary when an old Indian gent walks in and says to the young shelfstacker ‘you got time?’. The young shelfstacker says ‘yes, quarter to two’. ‘No’ said the old gent in complete exasperation ‘thyme, to put in food’.

Anyway, to get over my lunch incident I went for a stroll and am always cheered up by the legions of tourists photographing the Peranakan shop houses on the road behind us. They are beautiful and the kids call it Rainbow Road. (Aren’t the bins a total shame?)

shophouse3

It reminded me of one of my first taxi trips in Singapore with a lovely old Malay cabbie. I was in no hurry and he was in the mood for a chat. He told me that this is a conservation area now but that the whole of Katong (the area we live) has changed beyond recognition. Shophouses were seen as houses for the poorer classes – now they are home to wealthy expats and posh Singaporeans from what I can see. My cabbie grew up in a shophouse in a lane near where we live and started to tell me about life in Joo Chiat and Marine Parade when he was a boy. It was essentially a fishing village – Katong means Turtle – and he made pocket money as a kid helping at the fish stalls. What is now a huge, soulless shopping mall was once the jetty and there were row upon row of fish hawker stalls selling food and people would come from all over the island to eat here. Only one building remains untouched – it was the old police station and then a tea house – and that too is due for demolition to make way for yet another hotel/ mall.

police station katong

Singapore is changing so fast, building after bland building is being thrown up, and I wish, more than anything, that the urban planners would find more time to think.

lanterns

raindrops

It’s been a funny old week and I’ve hummed and ha’ed about what to write – how to say what I’m thinking without sounding like I’m sitting in judgement. I’m just watching and making sense of my tiny space on this planet. I don’t have any answers. To give you an idea of where this is going, this is a short sentence that Dom read somewhere – it says a lot about life, particularly about life here in Singapore.

People buy things they don’t need
With money they don’t have
To impress people that don’t care.

During these turbulent times and when things got tough financially, people stopped and thought about how they lived and what their priorities were. Around us in the UK, some carried on with their head in the sand refusing to contemplate any shift in lifestyle; some realised they lived under huge economic fragility but were happy to take the risk; some (us included) took a deep breath and changed some habits.

I read and Dom and I talked and we changed as a family, gently. There are some powerful sources of inspiration out there and it helped me to adjust my view of the world. I particularly enjoyed this one http://www.becomingminimalist.com.

Having experienced a shift in how we lived in the UK, it is quite an eye-opener to come to Singapore and discover just how much one small place can consume. From the billions of plastic bags to the endless ebb and flow of shopping mall after shopping mall, is it a commercial paradise or a place where the pursuit of pleasure has overtaken the search for happiness?

That instant hit of pleasure when we buy something, how long does it last? How long does it take before we desire something new?

If you have a window in your day, pour yourself a drink and watch this

What are your thoughts?

I am still looking, changing, adapting and reading and trying to find my way. The journey to finding happiness has been described as like being on a very turbulent flight through grey cloud and suddenly, just for a moment, you break through the cloud and fly in the clear blue sky above marvelling at the wonder of it. (www.getsomeheadspace.com)

Right now in my life? It’s very, very turbulent.

stepping stones

Let’s get out of the city today; out of the chaos and the noise, the chatter and the fumes.

I had to get some peace and didn’t know if you could find it in Singapore. I was given a tiny taste at the Pasir Ris park where if you can escape the play park, the bicycles, micro scooters, stables and pony rides there is a mangrove swamp. Not a big one, but a mangrove swamp all the same. This fair island was once nearly all swamp and that is very, very hard to believe at times.

And escape I did. Up to the North West of this tiny island and the Kranji Farms and the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. It’s impossible to describe how strange this landscape is to girl from Kent but it is how I imagine the world to be if the dinosaurs were still roaming. The swamp is tidal which probably explains this:

mangrove swamp

And it has a quiet, eerie sound with all the birds and insects that makes you feel like you’re abandoned alone.

ghostly mangrovee

But then, if you open your eyes, you see that life is bursting in these dark, dank swamps – crabs of all shapes and sizes, fish like needles and mudskipper alien frogs. Then you start to notice the flora and fauna. It’s a haunting, magical place.

flowers in the swamp

pinprick flowers

Then, it breaks to give you wide lakes with flying fish. They are surprisingly inelegant and sort of plop in the water. Plop, it’s a good word.

mangrove reflections

Then, who should wander up to see what the fuss was about but this enormous bad boy. A water monitor lizard. Totally pre-historic with a scaly giant lizard body and a snakes head. Honestly, you couldn’t make him up. And no, they don’t run off when you startle them.

monitor lizard 1

monitor lizard

Then I saw a sign warning you about the crocodiles. Ok, monitor lizards I’m ok with but crocs.. hmmm… time to go.

The next stop was Bollywood Veggies. Go, you won’t regret it, just get on a bus, get in a car and GO. Everything about this place is an antidote to life in Singapore. It’s an organic farm and the biggest producer of bananas in Singapore. But this place is no straightforward, run-of-the-mill farm. As we walked in we were greeted by Tony – a Welsh gent of a certain vintage and a host of information and chat about the place. Then, Ivy arrived. Ivy and her husband own and manage Bollywood Veggies. She is a hurricane of a woman. I don’t know much about chakras but if you were to find Ivy’s it would be fire and lava. You can feel the heat of her energy as she strides past you (talking, always talking… very loudly). She tells Tony there are a group from a hospital here to talk about planting a sustainable garden. ‘At last’ she declares ‘they see that they can have a garden to eat. Wonderful’ and off she goes like a tornado.

butterfly dreams

Planted on permaculture principles of keeping layers of plants in harmony with each other, it is beautiful. Ten acres of clever planting and brimming with birds and butterflies. Can you tell how much I loved it? I truly did. More than a garden, more than a farm, Ivy and her husband are true philanthropists. They employ staff with physical disabilities and my companion for the day has read May’s book ‘Scaling Walls’ about her life. I hope Singapore embraces the message from Bollywood Veggies and takes it to her heart.

bollywood gardens1

lilies

Read about it here http://www.bollywoodveggies.com

We’ve been living in Singapore for 3 months – and it’s not been without some turbulence. It’s been fun sharing with everyone what life is truly like and made easier by instagram, facebook, facetime, skype and emails. In fact, I think we may have short-changed people at home with the less exotic aspects of our life.

The Singapore that people expect to see is this:

night pic

night 2

And it’s here, we just don’t live in that Singapore. We live in this one.

photo

shophouse1

When we were kids living abroad my mother would make us make cassette recordings for family at home. They are still around – we’d sing carols at Christmas and read diary entries and tell stories. At family parties they are still played to peals of laughter.

Then, when I lived abroad in the mid ‘90s there was still no home technology – nothing, nada, zilch. We kept in touch with pen, paper, envelopes and stamps. Receiving a letter was a holy grail moment, it was that exciting. You believed that you were actually living on the other side of the world. The world seemed huge and daunting.

Before I left for Japan a friend gave me a plastic planet spinner – you could twist it round to your latitude and map the stars. He showed me that at times, we could see the same constellations in the UK and halfway around the world. I remember vividly thinking, in that second as he explained how it worked, that the world was smaller than I thought.

In 2013 it’s all a bit different isn’t it?

Now the world has shrunk so much I can pick up news from home and chat with friends with a click. The irony is it makes you more homesick. Way more homesick. Because in your head and virtual world you are still local; then you turn off the computer, radio 4 podcast, BBCiplayer, put down your phone and look up and remember where you are. It takes an enormous amount of effort to disengage from our old life and embrace our new one.

On the upside my mother has my UK iphone and has learnt to send text messages. When the first one arrived I thought I was hallucinating. She uses it like an alarm clock with texts like ‘you forgot another birthday’, ‘your father didn’t buy any sherry,’ ‘Have you found a hairdresser yet?’ When she signs off a text she always signs off ‘mumx’. The spellcheck on the iphone always changes it to ‘minx’.

When I get a text from minx, it always make me smile.

hungry ghosts2

As I waited at the bus stop I was approached by (another) granny. She was very keen to know if Prince George was named after his great grandfather (probably), whether we thought Princess Kate beautiful (well, I do like her hair) and whether Prince Harry could be the love child of James Hewitt (hope not, for his sake). Then a man came out of the café behind us and started to make an altar with fruit and vegetables and lit some joss sticks. He then got some fake paper money and made a home-made brazier – all on the pavement and started to burn it.
I noticed up and down the street more people were doing the same.

hungry ghosts1

My granny told me that it is Ghost Month. August is not a lucky month. In fact she said, the gates of hell are open and everyone is coming up top to see what’s going on – to see whether there are souls to steal. The altars are to ensure that your ancestors upstairs aren’t part of this ghostly party from downstairs. You offer your deceased family members food and money that can be used in their afterlife. Then on the 15th of the month there is the Festival of the Hungry Ghost – To appease those ghosts who have no families to make offerings to them, a feast is offered with empty chairs for the ghosts.

As we walked home from school there were piles of burning papers up and down the Joo Chiat Road and the smell of incense everywhere. Kids were intrigued, Millie said it was a lot like Halloween. Indeed (but without all the sweets and kiddie hysteria).

hungry ghosts3

Today’s granny is Chinese but was born in Vietnam. After the Vietnam War she was evacuated but her family were split up – most went to the US, she went to Australia. Despite being incredibly well travelled she said she is still, even now, terrified to go back to Vietnam. Her English is still patchy yet none of her kids speak Chinese. Her eldest son lives in Singapore and she visits twice a year and her other son plays the violin in the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra. She was a delight and it was a privilege to sit on the bus with her.

rain

I’m a very polite guest here in Singapore but it is one of those days and as Jane Austen once (kind of) said ‘if you have nothing useful to say, restrict your remarks towards the weather’.

It’s hot and overcast here with thunderstorms in the afternoons. Every day.

It’s true, I find the weather here very challenging.

When I was an English teacher in Japan, about a million years ago, we had to teach the kids these dreadful songs. One was cheerily called ‘The Weather Song’. It wasn’t tricky. One group had to sing ‘How’s the weather?’ and the other group would reply ‘It’s sunny/rainy/cloudy’ – delete as appropriate.

One day, a group of six year olds all sang ‘How’s the weather?’ ‘It’s unchi’ came the reply. I let them sing it over and over (killing time, I wasn’t a good teacher) thinking that it probably meant ‘happy’ or ‘fun’ until the door slid open and my office manager kindly pointed out they were singing:

‘How’s the weather? It’s s-h-i-t.
‘How’s the weather? It’s shiiit
How’s the weather? It’s shiiit, it’s so shiiit today.

This week (and last week), the weather in Singapore is definitely unchi.

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