30 October 2009

Sex, Sexuality, and Censorship

A couple of weeks ago, I was at home watching a rerun of Friends. (Yes, we do get tons of American shows here.) It was the New Years Eve episode where the "friends" sulked in Monica's apartment watching the rest of their party welcome in the New Year. Chandler tries to cheer everyone up, noting "there are 3 guys and 3 girls here" – everyone would get a New Years kiss! For those who know the episode, it ends with Chandler throwing a tantrum because no one will kiss him, so Joey lays a big one right smack on his lips!

Well, Singapore's version was a bit different.
Right when Joey started to lean in, a white flash came across the screen and the next frame was Chandler looking bewildered (apparently for no reason). Hmmm...is Singapore really that "homophobic," censoring out even the most light-hearted of homosexual references?

Perhaps not. Featured on HBO recently was Philadelphia, the story of a gay lawyer who is fired when he contracts AIDS. I watched the movie in anticipation of its famous scene: protagonist Tom Hanks dancing with boyfriend Antonio Banderas at a costume party, then the kiss on the dance floor. (I've always been a bit jealous of Tom Hanks in this role.) Smiling, watching, waiting, then cut! No kiss for Tom Hanks in Singapore's version.

It appears that "sexually illicit" material going through the filter of MediaCorp, Singapore's media monopoly, can be talked about and referred to but not actually seen. And it's not just homosexual actions that get the boot; sex in general is closely guarded. In the movie Parenthood, references to pornography, vibrators, and oral sex are kosher. But when it comes to the "big" scene in Sex and the City (The Movie), MediaCorp leaves you hanging. Even Singapore's adult entertainment stores don't sell porn (in magazine or video format).

Now I'm not an advocate of the porn industry; nor do I condone explicit material on television where those not mature enough to handle it have easy access. My shtick is this: Chandler kissing Joey is not in the same league as seeing someones ho hum up close and personal. And if you are going to censor the sexually explicit in Singapore, why not start at Orchard Towers (endearingly called the Four Floors of Whores).

And so I pose the question: Why censor? After all you can get the real version of what you don't see on TV (both hetero- and homosexual) just down the street from my house.

27 October 2009

The Population Push

Ah, the joys of city living. As many of my friends will attest, I am pro-public transit all the way. In fact, public transit systems top my "benefits list" of big-city life. During the 6 years I called Chicago home, I cabbed it to work only twice and found the "L" to be a convenience rather than annoyance – the obvious exception being bitter winter days waiting 20-plus minutes on outdoor elevated train platforms. So why has my pro-public protocol taken a turn for the worse? Population, Planning, Pace, and Perspiration is why.

Singapore is the 3rd most dense country in the world and almost 4 times as dense as the Windy City.
The population "problem" (if you can call it that) makes even the most docile commuter (like me) want to push people out of the way! But let's be honest here. I've done the daily commute on New York's Manhattan Island – an area much denser than Singapore – and never did I feel the population push as much as I have here. But unlike Manhattan's work-day population swell, as professions swarm in from elsewhere, workers in Singapore often come here...and stay. Live-in help (which undoubtedly is forgotten in the population density calculation) call places like Malaysia, Philippines, and India their true "home." So when we talk population, official calculations may lie askew.

But the population is as much an issue of distribution as actual numbers. City planning also contributes to commuting stress on the part of many an expat. While New York City boasts Central Park as its main reservoir of undevelopment, about 23% of Singapore's land mass is forest/nature preserves and 2/3 of the country's surface area is reserved for water catchment...places commuters wouldn't necessarily hang out. In addition, MRT stops are not commuter-only places of transit. They are housed inside large malls with restaurants, boutiques, grocery stores, and of course all the consumers that frequent them.

Pace and perspiration are one in the same. Except for the escalators which move at NASCAR speed, the pace here in Singapore is at a loitering level. For many a commuter heading to their professional places of work, showing up with arm-pit sweat marks from a quick commute is definitely faux pas. Even the workday, which starts late and ends late, is designed to avoid the hottest parts of the day (2 to 5 pm). For those used to the bustle of cooler climate commutes, you may find yourself packed-in and your promptness inpolite.

When it comes to the population push, commuters beware...Singapore will give you a walk for your money.

25 October 2009

My Malaysia

For those planning a trip to Singapore, might I suggest 2 no-misses while in the area. Easy to get to and quite a contrast to Singapore's cement jungle, Melaka and KL should top your list.

A 4-hour bus ride puts you right where history (or at least colonialist history) began in this area of the world. Melaka was Singapore before Singapore was Singapore as the major stop off point for those heading East to West. An active port in its heyday, Melaka was frequented and settled by Chinese merchants, then occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English before gaining independence in 1957. Remnants of these multi-national influences are impeccably preserved in present-day Melaka. With its outstanding shopping, quaint small-town feel, and rich but modest historical sites, Melaka deserves a day or 2 even for self-proclaimed city slickers.

Two more hours on buses departing every 15 minutes (what could be more convenient than that) puts you up-close and personal with hands-down the most beautiful buildings on earth...the Petronas Towers. Standing like wedding day brides side-by-side, these towers dominate the KL skyline. But that's not all KL has to offer: a birdpark that "out-birds" Singapore's open-air aviary; the Batu Caves that challenge even the most fit with its 272-step climb; and Little India's weekend night market that rivals the chaos found in "Big" India.

Accessible, unique, historically rich, yet often overshadowed by close-by Thailand and Singapore, these Malaysian cities provide "quality" time for all their visitors.

22 October 2009

A Not-So-Hidden Gem

Now that our time in Singapore is coming to an end, I'm visiting all those places that have taken the back burner to trips, nights out, or just watching TV. Having ridden past the Chinese Garden MRT stop several times, curiosity finally got the better of me...and boy am I glad it did! According to one of my guidebooks, Singapore's Botanical Garden outranks the Chinese Garden by 2 stars. My other guidebook doesn't even mention it. But if you take my advice, Chinese Garden is definitely worth a visit.

Numerous pagodas offer picturesque views of the park from above. Near the Stone Boat lies a pond with hundreds of hungry fish (a couple breeds native to only SE Asia) pouncing the surface for any food stuff. The abundance of bridges vividly reflected in the water it traverses will cause any onlooker to stop for a photo. And for those not impressed by Chinese Gardens, never fear. The Japanese Garden is housed within! Complete with an enclosed bonsai display, both gardens are sure to impress.

Don't be deterred by its "far-away" location. It's right on the way to further-out "no miss" attractions like the Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park, and Singapore Zoo. It also makes for a great day when paired with the Tiger Brewery tour. Even when compared with Botanical Garden's location, Chinese Garden's location is arguably as convenient. After all, currently there is no MRT that stops at Botanical so get ready for the 25 minute walk from MRT to park gate! And once you have arrived, be prepared to battle crowds; unlike the relatively desolate Chinese Garden, Botanical is overrun with families, runners, locals, tourists, and weekend yoga, tai chi, and dance classes.

Though not over-hyped by Singaporeans or guidebooks alike, in my book Chinese Garden is a no-miss.

16 October 2009

Past is Prologue

In the heart of Singapore's Chinatown lies three restored shop houses that offer a peak into Singapore's Chinese heritage, both good and bad. Being a museum, I expected to get a bit of history, learn some tid-bits about the early Chinese settlers, and maybe learn a new Chinese word or two. But what I didn't expect was an unveiling of motivations behind rules, norms, and habits that are now part of Singaporean everyday life.

The museum is set up like a living archive: personal accounts and quotes paper the walls; video taped old-timers recount memories of a less cosmopolitan Singapore; and photos on display archive times past and the red-hatted samsui women who swore off marriage and worked in construction to build the Singapore we know today.

The first video I stopped to watch recounted the post-Raffles days when Singapore's port was open for free trade. Tea and silk were not the only things traded however
. Another export got the best of Raffles' new-found colony: opium. Opium dens of various "grades" littered the streets of Chinatown attracting both high-end visitors and "coolies" (manual laborers without vocational skills). And seamen coming ashore en masse also gave rise to another industry still alive and well in Singapore...prostitution. But the opium and prostitution brought more trouble than business. Addiction grew rampant, especially among the lower working class, and sexually transmitted diseases reach pandemic proportions.

When considering these two new realities that hit Singapore by storm, it sheds light on present-day national practices. Drugs are now "highly" illegal. And if you don't know what I mean by "highly," just take a look at your embarkation card as you enter this city-state: "Death for Drug Traffickers" it reads on the back. Also, prostitution is regulated to the nth degree. All prostitutes must register with the government and submit to frequent health screenings, a practice which started in the late-1800s.

In addition to sailors and foreign businessmen flooding Singapore, immigrants from China arrived (and are still arriving) seeking money and a better life. Though some (tailors, barbers, etc.) came with marketable skills, those unskilled lived a hard life most apparent by where and how they lived. With little money and little free time, their living quarters were sub-par to say the least. Recreated in the Chinatown Heritage Centre is the dorm housing common for migrant workers of the 1900s.

You may wonder what closet-size dorm rooms have to do with today's housing situation in Singapore. Well, recently a Filipina migrant I know (with marketable skills, mind you) was ousted from her "apartment" after the building shut for code violations. Apparently the landlord had divided already small apartments into numerous smaller rooms, many without windows or proper ventilation. Dorm living is still a reality in Singapore for much of the migrant worker population (both skilled and not).

But perhaps my favorite historical idiosyncrasy made-present is the "spot reserving" norm here in Singapore. In the heritage museum, one account described an outing to the Majestic Theatre back in its heyday. People used to designate their seat by placing a handkerchief on the location they chose. Any present-day Singaporean knows that reserving your spot during lunch-hour rush is key. And guess what they do? Place their handkerchiefs (well, now they are mass produced napkin packets wrapped in plastic and sold street-side) on the hawker centre table of their choice.

Maybe the past isn't necessarily necessarily prologue; but it sure does hint at what may be to come!

(Samsui photo taken from http://yesterday.sg/2007/04/samsui_women/)

13 October 2009

Crossing the Line

There is a local show here in Singapore that interviews "the new foreigner in town." On the last episode, a Korean newcomer was asked what things she's had to get used to in Singapore...her reply: "Singaporeans love to stand in line...I haven't quite figured out why Singaporeans stand in a long line for something like a free cookie." Boy did she hit the nail on the head!

In a previous blog, I described our experience at the Asian Civilizations Museum on National Museum Day. And yes, it was a free for all. Free admittance, free special exhibition entrance, free ice cream, and of course plenty of free time spent in long lines. But today Singaporean queuing tendencies crossed the line.

On my way to the MRT today, I noticed a queue wrapping around the shopping mall close to home. Amidst the crowd was a small booth with people wearing placards advertising Colgate's Sensitive Pro-Relief toothpaste. Hmmmm...a line for toothpaste? Well, I guess I've stood in line for things of less importance than toothpaste before. But this particular line was not moving; it was a standstill of close to 100 people on their lunch breaks waiting for something Colgate-esque. The time value of money concept was obviously not at play here.

I guess "the new foreigner in town" was right: Singaporeans love to stand in line, or maybe they just have more patience than most. I optimistically concede to the latter.

08 October 2009

Mid-Autumn Moon Cake Mayhem

This past weekend, Singapore (and the rest of Asia) celebrated their Mid-Autumn Festival. As important to Singaporeans as Thanksgiving and Christmas are to Americans, Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for family and friends to gather, light lanterns, watch the moon rise (which is at its fullest and brightest), and eat moon cake.

Legend has it, Cheng'e (the moon goddess) and her husband Houyi were banned to the earth to live as mortals following the death of the Jade Emporors 9 sons at the hands of Houyi. Seeing his wife's distress, Houyi searched out the pill of immortality and once obtained placed it in a case for safe keeping. Curiousity getting the best of her, Chang'e found the pill just as Houyi returned home. Not knowing that only half was needed for her own immortality (the other half was for Houyi), she swallowed the entire pill. She floated to the sky, eventually landing on the moon, and can still be seen dancing there during MoonFest.

For those not impressed by legend and tradition, you are bound to enjoy the moon cakes. Like Christmas cookies, moon cakes come in traditional forms and creative new concoctions. With a gingerbread-esque encasement, traditional cakes are filled with anything from egg to lotus paste while their modern counterparts boast coatings and fillings of chocolate, brandy, or herbed cheese to name a few. And it's no surprise that any hotel with a reputation has their own versions to sell at a price as pretty as the cakes themselves.

So to all my friends, family, and blog followers who couldn't enjoy Mid-Autumn Fest with us, we say:
中秋节 快乐 (zhōng qiū jié kuài lè)!

04 October 2009

Culinary Curiosities

Growing up, I remember dreading those 5 words my mom would say when she didn't feel like cooking: "let's have breakfast for dinner." That phrase would usually be followed by post-7pm scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. Breakfast for dinner? Come on. But just recently the true arbitrariness of our designated choices for morning, noon, and night cuisine came to light.

Now that the new ION Orchard mall opened, my daily commute requires me to navigate a sea of stores and loitering crowds. Nestled between shoe shops, clothing boutiques, and casual dining restaurants is Dunkin' Donuts. My first encounter with the newly opened store was on my way to church one Sunday morning. I remember making a mental note that Singaporeans must not like donuts. The store was empty except for a few token expats getting their sugar rush for the morning.

The following evening I passed by the same store and couldn't believe my eyes...pouring out of this sweet-treat "breakfast" shop at 10pm were two long lines with dividing ribbons to guide the queues. They even had an addition "express" line for those wanting just one or two donuts. Here in Singapore, donuts are an afternoon and late-night snack not a weekend breakfast item or morning staple for those wearing blue.

It's not just scrambled eggs or Dunkin' Donuts after noon that might cause one to pause either. How about beef noodle soup for breakfast (a staple in Vietnam), red beans and rice for dessert (a sweetened Singaporean treat), or fritatas in the afternoon (ever tried tortilla espanola?). So here's to embracing breakfast time in the evening time. And thanks to my mom who, when dad was out of town, would always suggest: "let's have dessert for dinner."

01 October 2009

Foreign Flavors

No trip would be complete without sampling the local cuisine. That is half of holiday fun! And along with the familiar, there are certain to be foreign flavors worth sampling.

Being the stepchild of the Indo-Chinese peninsula, I had low expectations for Cambodian cuisine. Bland, rice-based imitations of the Thai's flavorful food was what I expected. Boy was I surprised. Amok and glassnoodle salad were fav
orites of mine in Cambodia. Using lemongrass, coconut milk, chili, and cilantro, these Khmer cuisines tantalized my taste buds and were favorites of mine on the trip. Pineapples and coconuts were a plenty and used for drinks, flavoring, served whole, or as a garnish. As for the more "local" snacks, fried spiders and and silk worms (tasting of nuts and milk) were offered to us along the way.

In Vietnam P
ho Bo was an obvious expectation. But for breakfast?? As I soon found out, this noodle and beef soup is not served for dinner, only for the lighter meals of the day. More appropriate for the evening meal were the pancakes (yep, not a breakfast item here). These flour or egg based wrappings (you choose) were more like mini, deep fried tacos than the doughy sweetness of their American counterparts.

For those wanting a continental breakfast rather than traditional Vietnamese soup, there is a culinary surprise for you...the best baguettes I've ever had! Served with butter or jam, the Vietnamese have the French to thank for this addition to their culinary repertoire. Served alongside a glass of iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk (the typical serving method), it is a breakfast both Westerners and Easterners can enjoy.