lundi, août 31, 2009

Meeting Friends and Penang Food Galore

Mom, CL & Babies at Snake Temple in Penang

On this trip back I got to meet a bunch of really nice fellow bloggers, namely SIG from Daily Affairs (aka Queen of the daily Bento), Dutchess from Lekker (just as regal in person), Petite Fleur from Rojak Rendezvous (her cute daughter is a mini-her :-)) and Edith from Precious Moments (we got to taste her new Bangkok Kaya Cake!). It wasn't easy getting the dinner organised and I have helped the least since I didn't have internet connection.

Dinner was seafood at Hua Yu Wee and I really liked the fact that we got to eat in a colonial-style bungalow. Only damper was Baby Girl not feeling well for some reason and therefore spending the whole evening whinging and not eating or playing with the other children who got on amazingly well with each other.

I also got to meet a few Singaporean ladies married to Italians and living in different parts of Italy. Funny of course that we should meet up in Singapore - it being more difficult to meet up in Italy. Lana had been a real dear, very warm and enthusiastic and I'm sorry I couldn't collect the foodstuff she got me due to lack of time.

But in my 2 months in Singapore, the few people I bumped into by chance were the lady bloggers Dutchess and SIG, and Shirlina from the Italy group - and all at Wisma Atria. Why didn't I bump into any of my friends from Primary school up to University or even my former colleagues when Singapore is so small? But wait, I did bump into my former University lecturer Dr Cibulka one morning and that was all the more amazing since he now lives in the Middle East and was only in Singapore on holiday.

View of Georgetown from our hotel room

Tianhou (Heavenly Queen) Temple near the hotel

The fattest meet-up took place however in Penang. I gave up my initial idea to go Peranakan in Melaka because Brother C and CL have returned to Penang and had dangled an invitation before they left Modena. What better time to visit the food paradise when you know people who know about their food? Plus the Babies were really excited about meeting up with JM again and I am, as you all know, an indulgent mom.

A colonial building in Penang

Flew Tiger and spent 4 nights in 2 different hotels (Cititel Penang and Copthorn Orchid Penang) so that we could have a view of both the city centre and the beach. Must say thank God CL drove us in and out because it didn't look as if they had much public transportation on the island. By the way, Penang is a Unesco World Heritage City and for that you can enjoy the sight of beautiful colonial buildings everywhere. There is this former school that is now lying in ruins and I had visions of restoring it and making it my home...and me lounging about in my East India Company cotton kebaya tops. Which reminded me that I've forgotten to buy a few of those kebaya pins to fasten them with.

The hawker centre

Part of the spread

If I had to sum up what I did in Penang in one word : Makan. Brother C tried to bring me up to the beautiful coastline filled with boutiques and restaurants but had to make a u-turn because I was carsick. We had to stay on the lowlands - and eat. The famous Penang Char Kway Teow, Wan Ton Mee, Japanese food, vegetarian and half of this big hawker centre we were brought to one evening. Assam prawns, fried oyster omelette, mee goreng, sambal clams, tim sum, prawn noodle soup (ah, the broth!), BBQ sting ray...the list goes on. I ate so much I don't think I want to see Penang for a while. Now that I think about it, it was probably part of their design :-).

View of the sea at Tanjung Bunga (from Copthorn Orchid)

After years of eating simpler and less tasty Singaporean Hawker fare (due to the health scare?), I must say that Penang food is very rich and takes some getting used to. The 1st plate of Char Kway Teow I had was really good - as were the 10 pieces of fried lard that were found in it (and I couldn't help it, ate them all!). My mom looked at the really big prawns in it and was very happy - until she remembered her coming appointment at the hospital where they'll be reviewing her cholesterol. Well, can't have everything.

Famous Penang Char Kway Teow

JM as usual blossoms everywhere she goes. She has already won prizes at school (remember she is now learning English, Chinese and Malay) and was singing away in Mandarin everytime I saw her. CL said it's because she was born in Singapore - and has kiasu-ness in her blood as such. I should have returned home to give birth to Eldest Son.

JM and the Babies in the hotel pool

It was a good trip and I must thank Brother C and CL for their hospitality once again. Please remember that pizza, pasta and parmigiano await you if you should return to Modena. Bis bald!

Lotus and Singapore Musings

Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

I was home for our 44th National Day this year - but didn't get to watch the parade. Hub couldn't seem to understand why anybody would want to watch a parade (especially on TV) and insisted that we dine out and then hunt for Eldest Son's ipod in Orchard Road that evening. Still, at 8:22pm I recited the Pledge aloud while waiting for the MRT at Serangoon MRT station - and was the only one to do so between the Circle Line tracks.

Should I feel embarassed? Yes, but not for myself. I was pissed off that those people young and old waiting for their trains just went on like nothing was happening. If they wouldn't recite the pledge in public, they could at least just drop whatever they were doing and listen it out.

I for one was glad not to have to recite the pledge everyday when I left JC. But I welcome the opportunity to do so on the 9th of August at 8:22pm knowing that I would be doing so with so many other Singaporeans at home and abroad. It made us look like Communists (according to some Foreigners) but then if you think about it, Singapore was part of Socialist International till 1976 and had resigned before it could be expelled. Since then it has pursued Socialism albeit the Singapore way at the same time as what looked like free-market economic policies - creating a wealthy capitalist state with weirdly socialist preoccupations like free public schools, subsidised public housing, healthcare etc.

I read this as uniquely Singaporean practical idealism. It churns out a practical materialistic society with strangely idealistic goals (e.g. "good" society, family values, meritocracy etc). The Pledge is a reflection of our ideals (e.g. united people, democratic society, justice, equality...), while the slow progress towards its attainment could be due to our very practical way of doing things (or some would argue that it was the Government's fault, whose else?). And like every relationship in life, be it with family, friends, spouses or even neighbours - one has to keep working on it and never take anything for granted. This call to pledge was a wake-up call for me and if there were people who bothered to organise it (whatever their reasons), I was happy to meet them half-way.

Is Singapore a nation yet? I don't really know, but I have always felt myself to be Singaporean first and Chinese second. And I do not refer to myself as an Overseas Chinese - but as an Overseas Singaporean. I am all for the liberation of Tibet and am disappointed that Hong Kong didn't become independent like us. But I am also proud of my Chinese roots and am sorry that I have not paid more attention to the language or culture.

When I arrived at Changi Airport, the Malay immigration officer told me that she felt like a 2nd-class citizen in her own country. I have noticed myself that in the past decade, the number of Mainland Chinese in the country has increased significantly. And while they filled in many positions that needed to be filled, they also deflate the already low wages in certain sectors making it difficult for Singaporeans who remain in those jobs. And not many of them actually integrate nor could really speak English. I was told that even in the SSAF they have their own Chinese company since they could not understand Hokkien or Singlish. LOL

On a personal level I shouldn't have any problems with them since I am fluent in Mandarin. But still, on a few occasions I actually was quite irritated. For example, I went to this Japanese Foodcourt at Tampines Mall and tried to order Japanese Rice with Curry - in English. The guy cooking and taking orders looked at me and said in Mandarin, "Please speak Mandarin." I started apologizing and then with a shock wondered why I did so. In Paris you wouldn't ask the French to speak African, would you?

Similarly, I was at Bedok Reservoir and stopped a lady to ask for a bus to Tampines. I started speaking and then she told me she couldn't understand me. I had to speak Mandarin. Same story at Orchid Country Club, the pool cleaner couldn't understand English! I also felt that it's not so shiok speaking to a Chinese person who couldn't understand Cantonese or Hokkien. But that's just me.

Still, being a descendant of Chinese migrants myself I suppose I should be more understanding and tolerant towards the new migrants. And perhaps it would be more important for existing Singaporeans to cultivate more graciousness instead of worrying about the new migrants and whether we need them or not. It has come to my attention that some Singaporeans were making noise about maids using the pools at condominiums and country clubs and how that would reduce the exclusivity of such places. I find it embarassing that people should even harbour such thoughts. Aren't maids human beings? Are they not entitled to leisure or pleasure too? If they live and work in the condos, I do not see why they shouldn't be allowed to use the pool like everyone else - as long as they do not bring in their own guests (since they didn't pay for the conservancy charges etc). Some Singaporeans are starting to give themselves self-importance in the wrongest domains and losing sight of the things that make us human - compassion being one of them.

I was also thinking that we seem to be moving away from a generation of elites who grew up from among the population to a generation of elites who probably sprouted from the present or last generation of elites. The top-down governance that Singapore has often been criticised for would surely be accentuated in the future. Ironically our meritocratic system, the constant streaming at schools etc could create a blatant chasm between those who have academic ability and those who don't - and decide early on who may succeed and who may not in the mainstream. In the last trip, I was quite surprised to discover a whole population of Bengs and Lians "hiding" in the neighbourhoods. I grew up in a neighbourhood myself - but was lifted out of the popular culture by education. And for some reason assumed that they (i.e. the Bengs) would one day cease to exist.

The musical about money

Finally, I went to the Esplanade Theatre to catch the Sing Dollar musical. I love the durian architecture (though I can't stand the fruit) and was impressed with the all boys group singing a cappella in the main hall before the show. Critics claim that like everything else in Singapore, the Arts scene is staid and boring - but I say that given our late start and multi-culturalism (neither here nor there), we're not doing too badly. In any case I love Kumar (next time I must catch his one-man show at the 3 Monkeys) and the trio who make up the Tim Sum Dollies, though I wish this musical didn't have so many...songs. I would have preferred more sketches.

Emerald Place

I have visited the new Ion Orchard (do we need another mall?), took pictures at Emerald Hill (me too I'm into Peranakan nowadays) and shopped. I went to a few Temples with mom and renewed myself with rites I took for granted when I was a child. Now that my parents are ageing, I wanted to find out what they would like me and my siblings to do for them when they leave this world.

Singapore Buddhist Lodge (free vegetarian food everyday for all)

Tai Pek Yun - opposite my Primary School housing today the Indian International School

Going back to Singapore gets more and more difficult over the years. It's not just the increasing financial cost, but the heavier heart with which I find my country - knowing that I have been and am missing out so much on my parents, siblings and their children; knowing that I am increasingly out of touch with things happening in Singapore; knowing that my children will be further away from Singapore the older we become and I daresay that Singapore's refusal to allow children born out of 2 cultures to embrace dual nationalities is a contributing factor. If a couple separate, do their kids really have to choose between them? If you are made up of 2 nationalities, will choosing one of them on paper allow you to ignore your other half? I am so Singaporean but I cannot encourage my children to be like me - knowing that they would not be able to keep both nationalities (and they have always lived in Europe). I would have encouraged my sons to serve NS if they could keep both nationalities and this could open up opportunities for them to choose Singapore as their home one day even if until now because of their father they couldn't do so. Why spend so much money trying to get Overseas Singaporeans to return - when right from the beginning options for our mixed blood descendants are closed?

My new Ferragamo sandals

My dad would say in Cantonese now that I'm "spouting Jesus". It suddenly occurred to me when I was waiting for a bus with my parents last week that for the longest time, the Cantonese have always used that to describe someone who is longwinded. Haha, the proselyting Protestants have been part of our local landscape for much longer than I could even remember!

Majullah Singapura! I wish all Singaporeans and those who love us lots of happiness, prosperity and progress in the years to come.

Makan Makan

Rahim's Bee Hoon Soto

I would have been a beauty in Ruben's times. But in Kate Moss' it doesn't do to be as plump as I am. I therefore had to be realistic and practical on my last trip back - the former because one cannot fail to eat when one is in Singapore and the latter as I am nearing 70kgs and cannot afford to put on the usual 7 Kgs that always accompany me after a few weeks in my hometown.

Rahim's Stall

So on my last trip home, I avoided buffet advertisements like the plague. I promised myself to eat just one dish every meal - and held out for a week until Anna invited me to a Fusion Chinese dinner at Hua Ting followed by One Wheel's Club Chinois brunch. Sigh...

Feast at Banana Leaf Apolo

In Singapore, it is possible to have just one dish each meal and still eat very well. It is because I no longer live in Singapore that I tend to gorge and consume more than 4 meals everyday when I am there.

Soy Bean Curd and Otah Otah

I really do love just the simple things : tau hueh (soy bean curd), Rahim's Bee Hoon Soto (that I've been eating since I was a teenager), good quality Cantonese Dim Sum (I had them at Yum Cha, Crystal Jade and Club Chinois this year), Roast Duck or Char Siu with Dumpling Egg Noodles (I had them almost every meal - it must be the negative reaction to Italian pasta, I so prefer the Chinese thin egg noodles), Teochew Fishballs, Hokkien Prawn Noodle Soup, Curry Flower Crab at Banana Leaf Apolo, Seafood Horfun from most Tzechar stalls, Malay Assam Sting Ray (I can eat this everyday), Malay Satay, Bengawan Solo kueh-kuehs, Roti prata, Kizune Udon soup, Pork Liver Congee...and damn good la mian (hand-pulled noodles) and Garlic-honey Pork Ribs from Mayim at Northpoint. I could go on, but I'm home now, I have to crash back to earth and eat soup everyday until I lose at least my holiday kilos.

Dim Sum at Yum Cha

Ok, just a bit more of reminiscing, on those days when I wasn't sticking to the one dish, I was seen at a Singaporean buffet at Straits Kitchen (Hyatt Hotel), a steamboat buffet at Coca (Mom's birthday), a Vegetarian buffet at LingZhi (still mom's birthday), a Ristafel at Rice Table, lunch at Sun with Moon, dinner at the Peranakan restaurant near my place, probably made the mistake of turning up at Penang (ate up a whole hawker centre), ate too much meat at Carnivore (Brazilian Churrascaria) and had buffet 3 times a day at Club Med Bintan in my last week. Not to forget 9-dish Tze-char dinners with the whole family on a few occasions. How could a country that doesn't produce much of any meat, fruit or vegetable cook up so many feasts?

Studio Loft 2009

We had this one enlarged to canvas size

We make it a point to have our photos taken professionally each time we return to Singapore. Maybe it's because we didn't have a wedding album like most people and we are making up for it by making one up as we grow older and fatter.

Soupe Tonkinoise

One has to bring one's own costumes for the shoot and I never bring more than a change or 2 as I usually prefer to go to Singapore with an empty luggage and leave with one filled with food. Besides, I reason that if you look good, all you need is your face.

Asian Mother and Daughter

This year we were photographed on the black, white and eggshell backgrounds. I dressed up everyone in white, blue, yellow, red and beige. Baby Girl was the only one in a purple Vietnamese Ao Dai and those conical straw hats came back with us from Saigon too.

Vietnamese Beauty

It is never easy trying to capture the children on photo and Maryann, a mother herself, has lots of experience and patience. We have been with her since we visited her stand at Singapore Expo in 2005 and it is my regret that I never thought of having photos of myself taken professionally when I was pregnant. Since I have since closed shop, it will have to be for another life.

Back in Action

Dressed for the "South Pole" in full summer

The kids started playing the minute they were home. They've missed their toys.

I had been without internet for 2 months. I was home for that long too but that didn't stop me from feeling sad as I was taking off at Changi airport 2 nights ago. Reaching Italy, I felt kind of surreal, trying to pin down what it was like being in Singapore one moment and then back in Europe the next - but that eluded me.

If I didn't have those 5 luggages (super over-loaded, had to carry one with me on the plane - and got into some trouble as I had a kid's cutlery set inside) and an amazing bouquet of curry, laksa and lime leaves from my aunt's garden in front of me, I could almost forget that I've been to Singapore. But of course each time I weigh myself, it would be difficult denying that I've passed through Asia, all those roast duck noodles and seafood horfun have left the blood stream and settled down in the cellulite - probably for good if I do not do something about it.

I am a little perplexed as to why I couldn't seem to "feel" what it was like to be in Singapore just a few days before. It is like I'm capable only of living the present and condamned to figuring out my past, as in "did it happen or did it not?" When I was younger I dreamt of moving from one country to another; now, I am cursed with occasional images of people I've met, places I've been to, things I've eaten...and a need to wonder about what is happening to everything and everybody all the time. I am going crazy...

The flight had been quite smooth. If only I could say the same about most of the KLM air hostesses' faces. On my 1st trip to Europe 17 years ago, I flew with KLM. I thought that those ladies were archaic then. Thay haven't aged, if you wish.

I do not (totally) agree with SIA's policy of only hiring slim and young women; but when you're flying with them, it is pleasant to have beauty and grace in front of you and a few smiles. Those ladies on my KLM flight hardly smiled and I swear the one serving my aisle actually frowned when I couldn't decide quickly enough whether I wanted orange juice or water. When Baby Boy said he wanted a 2nd glass of Apple juice, I begged him to forget it as I couldn't find the courage to ring for her. I almost threw him out of the plane when he started crying because she served his Child's meal to Eldest Son (the brothers exchanged seats) and the teenager actually ate it.

But the inflight entertainment was quite good (compared to zero on Lufthansa) and the lamb with mashed potatoes on the SIN-AMS leg was even quite yummy. But the best must be the sandwiches between AMS and BOL, I ate up mine plus those rejected by the children. And I normally dislike sandwiches. Dutch bread is good as is their caramel biscuit.

However, I agree with Shirlina that I may wish to reconsider flying with KLM again - because immigration at Schipol could be a pain. I entered Europe with my Singapore passport and my 3 kids' French ones - and they stopped me, wanting to check the authenticity of my Italian identification pass. With a Singapore passport I wouldn't need a visa anyway and with 3 European children I would hardly be material for clandestinity, don't you think so? They should be begging me to take up European citizenship. I was asked to wait in a queue comprising only of coloured people - from Indonesia, Nigeria etc. Took the opportunity to brush up my Malay with the poor guys and made the most of looking thoroughly bored each time the immigration officer looked my way. Comforted myself that if they were smarter they wouldn't be immigration officers.

The house had been invaded by crickets (they literally jump out when you open doors and cupboards), flies, spiders and their webs. Wasps had colonised the parasol outside. The cleaning lady had for some reason known only to herself moved half of our shoes to the guest room the last time she was here (cleaning after for Hub). There is dust everywhere. Half a dead pigeon and all of its feathers remained outside our door. Don't you think the owners ought to pay us to stay in the house instead?

School starts for the kids in a few days and we're set for one birthday party even before it does. I am so very far behind with my blogging and I'm already back to planning and cooking meals. Did I really go to Singapore? To Penang, Saigon and Bintan Island? I must surely have. Miss my parents already. Nobody to wash and iron my clothes and buy me breakfast...