Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gone too soon

The National Theatre (1963 - 1986)

The first National Library (1960-2004)
Was looking at some print drawings of old Singapore at a little stall run by an elderly couple and had that warm nostalgic feeling again. Some of these old sights have been thankfully restored and live on gloriously amidst the Singapore landscape but sadly, some have disappeared completely.

Bought prints of two buildings which I remember well and are now completed gone. The first was the National Theatre situated at the junction of Fort Canning and Clemenceau Avenue. It was officially opened on 8 August 1963 to commemorate Singapore's self-government and was the first and largest theatre in Singapore back then with a capacity of 3240 seats. Designed by a local architect named Alfred Wong, it had a striking huge cantilevered steel roof with a 5 pointed facade representing the five stars of the Singapore flag while the outdoor fountain was supposed to represent the crescent moon. Another unusual feature or lack of it was that it had no side or rear walls. Only the huge roof provided some form of shelter from rain which didn't help if it was pouring cats and dogs and the rain came in sideways. Of course, it was a simple beginning for a young nation and though it wasn't air-conditioned, that didn't stop a lot of great names back then who came to perform and Singaporeans from all walks of life who came to be captivated.

My biggest memory of the National Theatre was when I was around 5 years of age. After a dance performance which I don't quite remember much of, I spotted a familiar fresh face at the top of the spiral staircase within the theatre. She was the legendary Taiwanese songbird Teresa Teng who was regular feature in variety shows on our black and white television in the 70s. Sadly such a historic and beautiful building was demolished in 1986 as defects were found in its roof. Think they should have made a bigger conservation effort to preserve it as it was Singapore's first theatre, funded publicly from donations. Trishaw riders in 1960 donated their day's takings while some even donated bricks. With such stories behind it, it was definitely a worthwhile heritage site. Besides, architecturally, it was a memorable building unlike many of today's nondescript looking ones. Even the Van kleef Aquarium which was situated on its grounds was demolised along with it. As a child, I was captivated by the legend of the man eating pirannas that were a major exhibit at the aquarium. Ah ...simple times and simple pleasures.

The second was Singapore's first National Library at Stanford Road. Built in 1960, it was demolished in 2004 to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel. To demolish this grand dame which held so many fond memories for Singaporeans just to make way for a short tunnel was totally unnecessary, a sentiment felt by many Singaporeans. However, the controversy surrounding the building's demise has been credited for sparking greater awareness of local cultural roots and heritage conservation among Singaporeans. But it is sad that this building had to be sacrificed before the realisation.

I remember the days when a trip to the old National Library with my classmates was such fun. Giggling and yet trying our best to keep it under control in the library and the simple delight we shared while tucking into the delicious wanton noodles at the little eatery right in front of the library. Somehow food always tasted better while we were growing up. Down the sentimental lane once again.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Bentwood chair

The Bentwood is the second chair from the left (suspended in the air)
Picture via Inside Out magazine

There is something very sexy about a well designed chair especially a curvy one like the Bentwood chair. Also known as the No. 14 , it was designed by Michael Thonet in 1859 as a cafe or bistro chair using a unique steam bent technology. The wood had to be bent, hence its name and I presume that it was only the experiment on the 14th prototype that was successfull. With its affordable price and simple design, it became one of the best-selling chairs ever made and till today, it remains a true design icon.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Chinese pastries

Wife biscuits
Little sponge cakes with sultanas (mouse cakes)
Flaky pastries with sweet or salty bean fillings
When I am in the vicinity of Chinatown, I will make it a point to get some of my favourite Chinese pastries. Unlike Western pastries which are mostly sweet, some of the more popular Chinese ones are salty. My favourite pastry shop is Chop Tai Chong Kok which means Big China in Cantonese. It has been around for years and come every Moon Cake Festival, there will be a queue for its popular moon cakes made in a very traditional way. But for the rest of the year, it sells a wide range of Chinese pastries such as Wife Biscuit ( Lo Por Peng) , a flaky pastry bun filled with a translucent white sweet winter melon filling. There's also a Husband biscuit, a similar looking salty version. I love the Wife biscuits here as the crust is fresh and crispy and its filling has a sweet and chewy texture. Like mooncakes, there is a story behind wife biscuits. Legend had it that a wife sold herself to slavery so that enough money could be raised to cure her father-in-law's sickness. Her grief stricken husband then came up with this receipe and his biscuits became so popular that he was soon able to raise the money to redeem her. Of course, there are many other versions to this story as well. Wife biscuits have been around for a long time and are especially popular in Hong Kong where I believe it is where they originated but I've not heard of husband biscuits till recently. Someone must have thought " Why not ? " and came up with a matching version.

Chop Tai Chong Kok used to be a dimly lit traditional Chinese pastry shop but in recent years, it underwent some renovation and its new premise is bright and cheery with lanterns and well-lit showcases. Attractively displayed is a wide range of pastries that looks similar but are differentiated by its colour and fillings. These are pastries with lotus seed , red bean or green bean paste and most are available in both sweet and salty flavours. And when I was there just a few days ago , I couldn't resist a banana looking sponge cake with sultanas. The lady at the shop said they were mouse cakes. How quaint ! I popped one into my mouth as I was leaving the shop and it was delicious as a light snack. It is very important to have well-lit displays so that the food looks temptingly good enough for customers to try it out for the first time. It is interesting how traditional businesses like this update themselves to cater to a younger market who are exposed to more Western pastries and sweet delights.
Chop Tai Chong Kok
34 Sago Street,
Singapore 059026

Friday, May 21, 2010

Vintage brooches

I 've always liked lovely vintage pieces to accessorise my clothes. Though a recent revival has made new designs old again, it is never quite the same as with the old pieces in terms of workmanship and authenticity. Some designers on etsy have even reworked some old vintage pieces such as flower brooches into newer, wearable designs such as bracelets. A mix of modern and traditional - how creative ! I have quite a number of pieces in my collection from my aunt's and mum's hand me downs to flea market finds. My favourites - brooches of little animals as well as art noveau pins and cameos. One brooch that is quite different and less ornate is my Ring a Ring a Roses brooch which has a circle of kids holding hands. It stood out from the rest when I first saw it at a flea market as it looked like a UN souvenir pin. How I long to go flea-marketing again !

Going Lomo

I have been resisting the I-phone even though it is about time for an update. I am not really attached to my phone like most people are these days nor do I hanker for the best models available in the market. A phone to me is merely a phone.
A friend of mine has been showing me the different applications available on the I-phone including this lomo effect which gives pictures a deep, saturated romantic look.

And while I was at the restaurant Pietrasanta at Portsdown Road snapping away with my usual camera, this friend of mine was showing off the richer tones of his pictures taken at the restaurant. An effect that made it appear like it was located under the Tuscan skies. I might succumb, perhaps.

The Alphabet of the Human Heart

P is for Passion. Passion has the power to transform your life - to reveal your purpose, your reason for being your life's work. To find out what your passion is, ask yourself, " What would I do if money was no object ?" Paint ? Write ? Teach ? Dance ? The trick is to think big, then begin by taking small, steady steps towards your dream. Mark Twain said that "the secret of success is making your vocation your vacation."

J is for JOY
Happiness is found deep within.
It comes from our soul - not from external things.
So look inside and feel the joy.
Soon those around you will feel it too.

I is for Imagination.
Think really deeply about something.
Then don't think about it at all.
See what pops up.
Then, once you've had an idea, make it real.
A cake isn't a cake until it's cooked.
Imagine what's possible. Make it happen.

I bought a book sometime back in Sydney called The Alphabet of the Human Heart which is like a handbook for the happy and a bible for the broken hearted. One side of the book shows the A to Z of our weaknesses, fears and lows and to turn our lives around, all we need to do literally is to turn the book the other way round for the A to Z of our hopes, strengths and our highs. The simplicity of the words and beauty of the illustrations impressed me so much that I bought 2 copies, one for each of my daughters. This book is a collaborative effort between 2 Australians, James Kerr and Matthew Johnstone.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Colbar at Portsdown Road

Colbar's Maryland chicken

Coldbar's rustic exterior

Went to reccee for a production recently and that brought me to the Portsdown Road area in Singapore. Heard of this place vaguely in some newspaper reports years back about a long established neighbourhood cafe called Colbar and sadly, how it had to make way for a government construction project.

Well, since then, there has been a happy ending for this cafe. The residents in this area which consists mainly of expats, petitioned to save the cafe and miraculously got their way.The cafe was moved hook, line and sinker or should I say planks, tiles and roof to a place that was quite close to the original site. That means Coldbar was literally transported and rebuild using the materials from the original building. It is now sitting prettily in a beautiful, luscious green area surrounded by black and white houses built during the colonial days. These colonial houses are rented out by the Singapore government and are highly sought after by the expat community. A rustic enclave reminiscent of a little English village with street names like Wessex and Whitechurch Road and is indeed a good place to lead a different lifestyle away from the hustle and bustle of the city. While the birds, butterflies and bees are a welcome sight, residents do have to put up with the occassional fruit bats and snakes.

And amidst this greenery is Colbar with its coat of blue paint, ceiling fans and retro deco items such as an old weighing machine. Colbar has a menu that is printed very plainly just like the days of yore where design has not reached such levels of sophistication as today. And like British cookbooks of the 60's, it had all words and no pictures but I suppose that adds to the charm. Fish and chips, steaks and the ever popular Maryland chicken are hot favourites here. It has a self order and pay up front first practice where the food will be served later at your table . A nice getaway from the city if you want a laid back Sunday feel and some hearty Western meals.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Singapore is considered by many as a food paradise for its rich variety of ethnic food and flavours. However, in terms of gourmet food, only two Singapore restaurants have made it to the top 50 of a much watched ranking of the world's best restaurants. One of which was Iggy's at Regent Hotel which was also voted by the inaugural Miele Guide in 2008/09 as Asia's best restaurant.
Besides the Miele Guide, there's the S Pellegrino World's Best Restaurant awards, given out every year by Britain's Restaurant Magazine with votes from chefs, food critics, leading restaurateurs and well-travelled gourmands. Though not as established as the Michelin stars, these awards which were first given out in 2002 have begun to gain prominence in recent years.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend for lunch at Iggy's which made it to number 28 on the top 50 list. It had jumped 17 places from its 45th position last year, no mean feat considering the intense world competition.

I was seated at a very pivotal postion, in view of the kitchen and what was extraordinary was the ethnic diversity of chefs. This was what a marvellous culinary experience should be - a fusion of cooking styles and a melting pot of flavours. What I experienced that afternoon was pure gastronomical delight ! To start off , I had an amuse bouche, a clear tomato liquid with a slice of sweet tomato. It was refreshingly good and it was fascinating to have a clear liquid extracted from a tomato. Then Hamachi with radish, sesame and fine herbs - a small portion tasty enough to just whet the appetite. Clam rissoto - which I must confess was slightly disappointing as the rissoto didn't taste smooth and rich enough against the earthy sea taste of the clams. More to come....cod fish pan seared to seal in its juicy and wonderful flavour . Only the simplest cooking style can bring out the freshness of the best cod fish and of course, Iggy's famous sakura ebi cappellini with konbu, infused with the most flavourful scampi olive oil. Sakura ebi prawns are from Japan and are not easily available except at Japanese specialty supermarkets and Iggy's probably imports its own. Then came a wild mushroom flan that simply melts in the mouth . My favourite main courses were the wild mushroom flan and the sakura ebi cappellinilini. Lastly, dessert - a mango pudding with a fascinating range of citrusy flavours, tart and sweet. I didn't take any pictures that day as I wanted to focus on the food but I wished I had.

The best part of the experience is the inspiration this lunch has given me to experiment with new flavours. Inspired by the sakura ebi cappellini, I actually came up with my own version of prawns with angel hair ( the closest thing to cappellini ) infused with a crispy shrimp and prawn chilli oil with a tinge of balsamic vinegar. My kids enjoyed it very much and it has provided a good alternative to tomato sauce based pasta. Must now find the time to experiment with a mango dessert that is not just creamy and rich but tart and sweet.