Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Silk Road

When I think of the Silk Road, I recall the days of the popular Japanese documentary series of the same name back in the 80's, tracing the actual journey of the greatest trading route in history. This memory comes along with the famous Silk Road tune by Kitaro. The Silk Road didn't refer to one single path but a collection of them. One thousand years back, they were crucial for cultural, commercial and technological exchange between traders, merchants, soldiers and nomads from Ancient China, India, Tibet, Persia and Mediterranean countries.
Silk wasn't the only commodity traded though it was one of the most highly prized for its vibrant colours and superior patterns and the secret of how it was made was highly guarded by the Chinese. The Silk Road exhibition in the Arts Science Museum traced the route covering Xi'an, the imperial capital of the Tang dyasty which held the secrets of sericulture (raising worms to make silk) to Turfan - famous for its night market of heady fragrances such as jasmine and rosewater, Samarkand - famous for the craft of papermaking to Baghdad - a hub of commerce and scholarship.
One of the exhibits at the museum - modern reproductions of Tang dynasty silk which are kept and preserved by the Japanese royal family. The repeating roundel patterns seen in the silk fabrics above is Persian in origin but Tang weavers often used it in their work. Lions paired within roundels were common motifs in ancient Iranian artwork and the Tang Chinese artists adapted this to include animals significant in their own culture such as mandarin ducks. There was a rich cultural and artistic exchange that took place over trading on the Silk Road.

The Art Science Museum at Marina Bay Sands Singapore

The Art Science Museum has just opened at Marina Bay Sands Singapore. Designed by renowned architecture Moshe Safdie, it has been called the "Welcoming hand of Singapore." Safdie and his team crafted a series of 10 fingers that radiate out from the centre of the building. These fingers progress in both size and height around the centre of the building forming the third and fourth floors and the tallest finger stands 60 metres above ground. All in all, there are 21 gallery spaces totaling 50,000 square feet. On show now are 3 travelling exhibitions " Traveling the Silk Road", "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds" and Genghis Khan : The Exhibition.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

We all go a little kitsch sometimes

In flea markets, one does come across the most kitsch objects. The ones from 70's and 80's China are very amusing and they don't neccesarily come cheap. I've seen an old couple selling porcelain figurines of Chinese kids in a series of athletic pursuits, from ping pong to gymnastics. Not surprising as these are games that the Chinese excel in.
Today, I chanced upon the most unusual kitsch figurine. Three Chinese boys with the most quaint hair styles, carrying a gigantic Chinese peach. The most eclectic and amusing kitsch figurine I 've seen in a long time. And I had to buy it. My daughters do think I buy the strangest thing.
Well, we all go a little kitsch sometimes.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Original Singapore dishes

Lunar New Year Raw Fish Salad

Singapore Yam Basket

Back in 1963, Singapore had four Heavenly chefs who created some of the country's most unique dishes. They were Master Chef Hooi Kok Wai, the late Mr. Tham Mui Kai, Mr. Sin Leong and Mr. Lau Yoke Pui. Hooi Kok Wai created the yam basket, one of my favourite Chinese restaurant dishes. It was like a bird's nest created from deep fried yam and in the middle, mushrooms, cashew nuts, prawns with vegetables like carrots and celery. This yam basket usually sits on top of a bed of deep fried rice vermicelli.

But the most famous dish from their collaboration must be the "Lunar New Year Raw Fish", which has now become a culinary favourite in Singapore. The popularity of this dish has even extended to Malaysia and Hong Kong. It is popularly eaten during the Chinese New Year period especially on the 7th day. Chinese wishes of luck, good health, prosperity and fortune are said aloud by everyone partaking in this dish while mixing in the sauces, raw fish ( salmon sashimi is commonly used these days ) and tossing all ingredients together with the chopsticks. The higher you go on the toss, the greater blessings you will receive. This dish certainly rakes in good profits for restaurants during this period.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Pineapple cup cakes

Cupcakes with a heart of pineapple

Didn't manage to make any pineapple tarts this Chinese New Year but I did make something else. It involved less work and made use of the pineapple filling I had bought with the original intention of making tarts. I first put the pineapple filling in the cases, then poured the cup cake batter over it. Tasted not too bad for something improvised at the last minute because I felt a little lazy. Perhaps next time with some pretty cup cake yellow frosting flavoured with pineapple juice.

Street hawkers of old Singapore

Street hawker stalls at Koek Lane, between Cuppage Centre and Orchard Plaza

Satay Club back then where Esplanade Theatres at the Bay stands

Ice balls flavoured with rose syrup and evaporated milk, a favourite of kids back in the 60's. Didn't matter that he was holding the ice ball with his bare hands

Home made ice cream from a tricycle.

A mobile form of hawking back in those days

The bustling Hock Lam street where it is not uncommon to see lawyers, judges and even ministers having their lunch as the High Court was just around the corner
Glutton's Square in the 70's came alive only after 6pm at a carpark just opposite Centrepoint Orchard

The famous Indian rojak at Waterloo Street

Hock Lam street was famous for its beef kway teow. Now, standing where it used to be - the Funan Digital Life Mall
A little heritage exhibition at the corner of Ang Mo Kio library caught my eye. Black and white pictures of the way it used to be brought back many pleasant memories and I count myself lucky to be born in the magical 60's, to witness the simple way of life before the great transformation came along, taking Singapore from the days of slow traffic and rich street life to the modern metropolitian city it is today. Back then, my parents brought me out alot in their Mini Cooper, going to different places for great hawker food. I still remember the original Katong laksa man serving his delicious bowls of laksa from the corner of a coffee shop. Despite many conflicting stories of who originated the Katong laksa today, I am very sure he was the one as there weren't anyone else like him in the Katong vicinity. He didn't have a proper stall , operating only with a big pot of gravy, a stool and some other containers containing noodles, bowls and spoons. But most importantly, he made do with what he had. He cooked the noodles by pouring the gravy into it and then pouring it out again, repeating it for a few times before putting in the gravy. Another efficient way he came up with was to cut the noodles which made it easier to handle. Though he lacked space and equipment, he made it up by his creativity.
Some of the streets featured in the exhibition include Hock Lam Street, home of the original Teochew version of beef noodles. The stall lives on today at Purvis street, run by the daughter of the original hawker. Glutton's Square on the other hand is a car park that came to life only at night with hawkers selling their food from a push cart. My favourites were the Hokkien mee and the cuttlefish kangkong. The food was so good that my parents overlooked the fact that each hawker washed his plates in a small pail of water. In fact, the dirtier the premise, the better the food. Yes, those were the days.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Architecture in Singapore

It is a human habit to take for granted one's own environment and to look to other places and countries as having "greener and more beautiful pastures". Didn't realised that Singapore is actually quite beautiful. Most people say it is a great place to live if only the weather was better. When I travel, the first thing that strikes me when I touch down back in Singapore is how clean and green it is compared to other modern cities. And with all the fanfare about how fabulous the skyline of Singapore has become with the opening of new developments in Marina Bay, I much prefer the conservation buildings all around. I love the juxtapose of new with the old as it brings out a beautiful contrast.

Singapore has gone through quite a number of architectural trends which can be divided into these phases , pre-war and post war, modern and post-modern. Pre-war buildings consist of a mixture of colonial British architecture which includes black and white bungalows, neoclassical and renaissance colonial government buildings such as the Supreme Court, City Hall, the Post Office (now the Fullerton Hotel), beautiful Peranakan houses, landmark buildings of worship such as St Andrew's cathedral and shophouses while post war, we see the emergence of art deco buildings such as the Asia Insurance Building. Then came the modern phase marked by "cookie cutter" standardised public housing. Aesthetically not pleasing but I suppose there wasn't much of a choice as there was a huge housing shortage for a growing Singapore, struggling after its separation from Malaysia. It was the most pragmatic thing to do. And when things really took off in Singapore , it ushered in an era of post-modern architecture with sky scrapers such as the OCBC building, designed by the world famous architect I. M Pei. During that time, corporations were trying to outdo each other in terms of how high their building would go compared to the other. Glad that silly era is over. Then came the conservation era which was about the rediscovery of Singapore's architectural heritage. It led to an active conservation programme and historial buildings such as the National Museum of Singapore as well as old crumbing Peranakan houses were beautifully restored.

And now, Singapore is in the phase of building iconic buildings which would put her on the world map such as the Esplanade (locals refer to as the Durian) and the latest Marina Bay Sands. These are modern signature builidings but as seemingly grand as they are, I still love the phase of restoring old buildings best. The above picture shows 2 buildings near the Doby Gaut MRT station. Don't you think they both look like vintage headboards for a bed or maybe the traditional headgear of a Polish or Russian dancer. Most likely, they were built during the art deco phase as they were in close proximity to the Cathay at Handy Road, one of the first art deco buildings in Singapore. My dad said the Cathay was once the tallest building in Singapore during those days and it made me laugh.

Magnolia Snack Bar and Hilda's

Saw an old calendar tray last week at the flea market and it had the most memorable, iconic scene for me. Before the building Centrepoint at Orchard was built, it was the location of Singapore's first and oldest supermarket - Cold Storage. Like Robinsons, Cold Storage was a place where the most fashionable ladies from the expatriate community would shop for their groceries. On the upper floor was a boutique called Hilda's which imports beautiful dresses, buttons and accessories from England. Mum used to come here quite frequently and memories of me rummaging through drawers of buttons are still with me. I love recommending her buttons I found to match her material. Then she would take me to the Magnolia Snack Bar for vanilla and chocolate ice cream which comes in little stainless steel cups. If I was really good, I get to order an ice cream sundae. My favourite was the Merry Widow which was a really strange name for an ice cream but it made me remember it even more after all these years.
Best of all, my school was just behind, up a little road called Emerald Hill . It was fun to know that right at the school door's steps was the iconic retail stretch of Singapore. A great distraction and diversion from our studies back in those days.
Then came the time to tear the buildings down for Centrepoint in 1983. I was sad to see the Magnolia Snack Bar and Hilda's go but with all modernisation, it was inevitable.
I wonder if anyone else has nice memories of this place ?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Silicon Baking Pans

I love silicon ! Not in the way some people associate silicon with - that is for personal body and facial enhancements. I am talking about a silicon baking pan which enhances the thrill of the baking process, ensuring the cake comes off easily and beautifully. Over the years, I have been using springform and aluminium pans for my baking and the clip on the former tends to get a little wonky after a few uses while the latter requires one to line the tin first. Just yesterday, I made a birthday cake for my mum using the silicon baking pan for the first time. Overturning the cake is one anxious moment because the joy of the whole baking process can be ruined with one bad turn. Silicon baking pans make it easier due to its flexibility. They may be a little more expensive but they are well worth it for the long run.