Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Of Queens, English history and stamps

The Machin head stamps were created in 1967
The first stamps issued in Queen Elizabeth II's reign based on a photograph by Dorothy Wilding

I have always been fascinated by my mum's stories of the British monarchy when I was growing up. Tales of the tower of London, beheaded queens and ghost sightings, the sparkling Crown Jewels, divorces and abdications .....all wonderful drama told vividly by my mum. I even had a stamp collection in the 70's with whole pages devoted to Queen Elizabeth II of England. I knew she must be a very important queen from a young age as stamps from England, Australia, Malaya ( as it was known then ), Canada, Borneo, Hong Kong, Montserrat, Mauritius and more featured her face or profile in one form or another.
My stamp collection has been lost for a long while since I got married but mum found it just the other day while she was clearing some of her old stuff. The cover of the stamp book was ridden with holes made by bookworms and I was wondering if any of the stamps within were just as scarred. To my surprise, they looked just like they used to years ago when I would turn the pages almost every other day to admire my collection. The memories came back, of how uncles and aunts used to save stamps collected from letters of their overseas friends just to give them to me. Sometimes mum would even bring me to a shop in Serangoon plaza, (the site of the present Mustaffa) to buy more stamps for my collection. The first adhesive stamp created was the Penny Black in 1840 and it featured the profile of Queen Victoria, England 's longest ruling monarch (1837-1901). Why was it called Penny Black ? It was valued at one penny and was in black. I actually have a Queen Victoria stamp in my old stamp book (though not a Penny Black) and it was the one and only one among stamps of King George VI (father of the present Queen) and of course Queen Elizabeth II, head of the commonwealth states.
The most iconic Queen Elizabeth II stamp is the machin head stamp, created in 1966 by the artist Arnold Machin. It has been around for over 40 years replacing the ones by Dorothy Wilding, the first stamps issued during Queen Elizabeth 's reign.
Stamps give milestones of history - of coronations, birthdays and anniversaries, colonial times and independence, war and freedom, presidents, heroes and inventors, wildlife and plantlife. Fascinating and rich.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Professor Brawn cafe

There is a cafe with a difference at Velocity in Novena Square called Professor Brawn. A cosy eatery with a striking chalkboard of drawings and writings on the walls as well as a gold framed picture of a man with an Astro Boy hairdo. Introducing Professor Brawn, the inspiration behind the cafe. Drawn by the autistic son of the owner Roland Tay, Professor Brawn is a strong super hero who doubles up as a professor by day. According to the mission statement on the wall, the cafe sets out to be a social enterprise venture to provide good & affordable foods by an inclusive workforce comprising people of different abilities, ages & socio-economic backgrounds. Some of the cafe's employees include former students of Pathlight, a school for the autistic in Singapore.
The Western set lunch sets here are good and provide value for money. $13.90 on average for a set of main course, a soup and a drink. I chose the BBQ ribs. The sauce was lip licking good while the rib serving substantial for the price. Eating ribs with fingers is really the best way to go. The clam chowder soup was also thick and creamy with just the right amount of real clams. Also adding a nice touch was the lemonade drink served in a carafe. No glasses , just drink it up with a straw straight from the carafe. There are other set meals I 've yet to try as I had ribs twice while I was there. Other items highly recommended by my friends include the chicken chop with truffle sauce. Ok, the next time.
I read about social enterprise food ventures that start out with the best of intentions but fail due to bad food and poor management. At the end of the day, despite ideals and mission, the food has to of a certain quality in order to be viable and stay in business. This one looks like it will.

Professor Brawn Cafe
238 Thomas Road#02-78/79
Novena Square

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tea, anyone ?

I love collecting tea pots and cups but learned to control myself over the years as I was running out of cupboard space. The last tea pot I bought was from Victoria's basement in Sydney early this year and I couldn't resist it as it was going at 50% off its original price. The fact that it was the only piece available left me no other choice. I had to have it. It was part of a V and A ceramic range based on the design of a water colour hand painted wallpaper which is on exhibit at the museum in London. The box mentioned that this wall paper was presented by the Chinese ambassador in 1800 to the owners of Shemfold Park, Sussez in England. And while I was at it, I too bought a set of matching two tier cake stand.

Cake stands, teapots, tea cups are found in every corner of myhouse, some stashed away in cupboards while others fulfill a more functional role such as holders for knick knack , vases etc. My 2 girls who have not inherited any of my girlish tendencies despite being at a more appropriate age have always laughed at my fetish for tea sets. Finally put some of my collection to good use when they were used for a shoot featuring Barberella , one of Singapore TV's most adored characters played by Michelle Chong. When I showed my kids the picture, they didn't get the point of how functional Mummy's playthings can be. All they asked was "How come you didn't bring home the cupcakes and sugar ducks for us ?"

Kids :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rice Dumplings

Today, the Chinese celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival which marks the 5th day of the 5th month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. Also known as Duanwu jie, it commemorates the life and death of the famous Chinese scholar Qu Yuan, an upright and loyal minister to the King during the Chu dynasty. When he lost favour with the king due to court conspiracies, he was disheartened and expressed his anger and sorrow through poems. He eventually took his own life by jumping into the river. The local people desperately searched for him in their boats and threw rice dumplings into the river so that the fishes would not eat his body. Thus every year the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated to commemorate this attempt which comes with the eating of rice dumpings (steamed glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) .

The Dragon Boat festival is deemed a public holiday in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong though not in Singapore or Malaysia even though there is a sizeable population of Chinese. Like mooncakes, the simple rice dumplings in Singapore have begun to take on a whole new dimension. To attract a young generation , Crystal Jade My Bread outlets in Singapore have rolled out enticing flavours like lychee, chocolate and pulot hitam, in pudding or mousse-like texture. When it comes to food, Singaporeans like to stretch their creative boundaries.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Comfort food - egg custard

Everyone has their own version of comfort food. When my kids are hungry and stressed from school work, hot little ramekins of chocolate fondant or egg custards will perk up their spirits. Egg custards especially are a breeze to make, taking only 10 minutes to prepare and 15 minutes to steam. They are also a good source of calcium for kids who don't like to drink milk.

Receipe for egg custard ( fills up 8-9 little ramekins )
4 medium size eggs
4 tablespoons of sugar
500ml of full cream milk
A teaspoon of vanilla essence

Whisk it well together and pour into the ramekins. It is important to cover the top of each ramekin with aluminium foil so that the top of the egg custard will remain smooth. If not, water droplets from the steaming process will fall back onto the top of the egg custard, making its surface rough and uneven.

If chocolate egg custard is preferred, omit the vanilla and add a tablespoon of cocoa powder dissolved in some water into the whisking mixture.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Salvation Army finds

Chairs that can be given a new lease of life
Wedding dresses
Bridesmaid dresses
Ornate Chinese Vases
Wood carvings of Oriental beauties

The Salvation Army has a number of thrift stores all around Singapore. Unwanted stuff donated by Singaporeans (especially after festive spring cleaning or before house moving) lands up at these thrift stores. It makes good business sense, judging by the fact that the Salvation Army raises over a million dollars each year for their social and community services just through collecting and selling . As they say, one man's junk is another man's treasure.
As I 've always wanted to visit a Salvation Army thrift store, I jumped at the chance just a week ago as I was passing by the branch at Upper Serangoon.

It was quite a large building situated just opposite the yet to open Woodleigh MRT station with two floors and a number of rooms. The sign outside each room was methodically labelled - clothes, shoes, bags, toys, books, vases and paintings, kitchenware and even house plants. They had a wonderful collection of old furniture and the Salvation Army certainly know the value of some of these furniture. A fifties teakwood wardrobe that came traditionally with a drawer for stashing jewellery and money ( my mum has one ) costs $800. These kinds of solid teakwood wardrobes could certainly outlast any furniture made today as no plywood is used for any of its parts. My mum once employed a part time maid who unfortunately stole and we could tell that she tried her best to pry open the drawer with probably pliers, a hammer and a chisel but apart from some dents left around it, the sturdy drawer refused to budge. That 's how well made these wardrobes were .

And someone actually donated a beautiful exquisite mirror piece with carvings that are usually placed on top of a dressing table or a chest of drawers. It was all nicely wrapped in plastic, ready to be delivered to the happy new owner. And amidst the more ordinary furniture, there were also gems like a set of classic Chinese furniture with mother of pearl inlay and a dining table with beautiful classic teak chairs costing only $250 for a set. If I could buy furniture all over again, I would love to restore some of these in terms of varnishing, repainting and refurbishing with nice fabrics. Recycling is the way to go today and tomorrow.

As for clothes, there were racks and racks of them which I did not go through but what stood out for me were the wedding gowns and bridesmaid dresses which seem quite suitable for a theme party or even Halloween. And in another room, shelves of the most colourful Chinese vases. If one took the time, you could probably find one that was should I say..... less ornate . The same room housed a number of wood carvings of oriental Chinese beauties which were actually quite beautiful and probably valuable (it was priced at $169 per piece) beneath that layer of dust. I was deciding whether I should get an old oil painting of Moulin Rouge in France for $30 but decided against it as the painting was quite large and the frame was crumbling.
Looking for treasures amidst the junk is really quite fun and money spent here goes to charity as well ! I may come back for the chairs one day just to have a hand at refurbishing it.

Here is a list of Salvation Army thrift stores around Singapore

Upper Serangoon Family Store
Address: 309 Upper Serangoon Road Singapore 347693
Operating hours: 10.00am - 6.00pm, Mon - Sat

Praisehaven Family Store
Address: 500 Upper Bukit Timah Road Singapore 678106
Operating hours: 10.00am - 6.00pm, Mon - Thu
10.00am - 9.00pm, Fri - Sat

Hope Centre
Address: 7 Upper Changi Road North Singapore 507705
Operating hours: 9.00am to 6.00pm, Mon - Sat

Bukit Merah FTS
Address: Blk 133 Jln Bukit Merah #01-1530 Singapore 160133
Operating hours: 9.00am - 6.00pm, Mon - Sat

IMH Pick & Choose Thrift Store
Address: 10 Buangkok View Singapore 539747
Operating hours: 9.00am - 5.00pm

Saturday, June 5, 2010

What is your favourite Sunday morning breakfast ?

Smooth bean curd (tao huay) in a sweet syrup

Lontong ( rice cakes, cabbages, long beans and bean curd pieces in a rich coconut gravy )

There's never really enough time during weekdays to have a nice, leisurely breakfast and I look forward to the weekend mornings, especially Sunday to sip my coffee slowly and indulge in local breakfast fare. Not British breakfast of eggs, sausage and bacon or American breakfast of ham and sausages, bread and jam or pancakes and syrup but a very Singaporean kind.

The Singaporean breakfast ranges from Chinese congee, yam cakes, chee cheong fun (steam rice flour rolls ), chwee kuey ( little rice cakes with dried turnip toppings ) to Malay dishes such as mee siam (vermicelli in a sourish sweet gravy), mee rebus (yellow noodles in a savoury sweet potato gravy) and nasi lemak (coconut rice with anchovies and chilli) just to name a few. Some of my favourites include smooth Chinese bean curd (tao huay) and Malay longtong (rice cakes cooked in a savoury coconut gravy). I can go on waxing lyrical about local Singaporean food and I miss it most when I go on holiday abroad where there are only breakfast options of American or British /continental breakfast. One or two days is fine but on the third day, it starts to get a little to me. As they say, you can take the Singaporean out of Singapore but you can't take the Singapore out of the Singaporean , especially when it comes to food :)

Escape to Sex and the City

The highly popular series and movies Sex and the City are credited for allowing women to have fun with fashion and I can't think of any city that is more appropriate as a setting than New York City. The city and its people have a natural flair for style and fashion and of course the willingness to experiment. I love the way New Yorkers mix vintage with couture and pull it off with such aplomb and energy. Carrie Bradshaw, the lead protagonist, played by Sarah Jessica Parker epitomises the New York girl, independent, spirited and down-right fashionable. My friend bought a coffee table book that features the stories, the fashion and the adventure in Sex and the City 2 and though I am not a fashionista, looking through the pages gave me a truly enjoyable escapist feeling. If only......

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Art Nouveau Tiles

Art Nouveau is a style of art that became an international movement from 1890 to early 1900s and was popularly applied to architecture as well as decorative arts. Though it was most strongly felt in Europe, its influence was global. It is characterized by organic, especially floral and other plant-inspired motifs, as well as highly stylized, flowing curvilinear forms.

I have a thing for art nouveau tiles from this era and Peranakan houses built during the 1900s in Singapore, Malacca and Penang used such art nouveau tiles imported from England for decorative purposes. Although there are reproductions available today, you can still see some old and original art nouveau tiles on the facades of Peranakan houses in Keong Saik Street and Ang Siang Hill in Singapore. And of course along Jonker Street ( Jalan Hang Jebat ) , the heart of Peranakan culture in Malacca.

My favourites are the ones with rich greenish, turquoise hues with bright reddish and pink accents and was absolutely delighted to come across beautiful tile pieces framed in the form of a mirror. The seller was someone who ran a vintage second hand store and he was in the process of selling off some possessions in his personal collection as he was moving. I haven't quite decided where to put it but it should soon adorn one of the main walls in the living room.