Monday, December 22, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 3 – Country Standards

Here in Japan, the year-end snap election brought Prime Minister Abe his victory after touting his “Abenomix” mandate, but the voter turnout was low. It was 52.66%, the lowest rate since the end of World War II. Almost half of the Japanese population did not vote. In Singapore, non-voting is illegal, so you have to pay a fine if you do not vote.

Singapore is notorious as a ‘fine bound’ country, but I find it rather affirming and motivating. They are designed for good causes and help enhance morals of the general public. For instance, smoking is banned (only three locations are designated for smoking in the state). As a non-smoker, I like the strictness of the law. I understand they have come a long way to become acknowledged as a non-smoking country. Their smoking population should be less than that of Japan (one out of six Japanese smokes). Japan Tobacco has advocated that smokers use designated areas only or vapor break rooms to little or no avail. I give a big applause to the Singapore Government, especially for reducing risks from despicable secondhand smoke (SHS). Japanese roads would be much cleaner without cigarette butts.

Regarding other laws, I can appreciate Singapore laws on gum. I heartily agree on Jay walking. I had some trouble with taxi stands. I’m one of the Japanese spoiled with the ease and convenience of hailing or by finger snapping on the street, inviting risks in traffic flow. In Singapore, you definitely need a smartphone and a location map of taxi stands. Singapore traffic flow is greatly controlled by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) with an Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme used throughout the entire island. The LTA overhead gantries collect tolls and parking fees from all the cars equipped with electronic tags (IU) on the roads. The pay-when-you-use principle helps make motorist more aware of the true cost of driving. Thus the road usage can be optimized. They are one of the few traffic gridlock-less countries in Asia!

My stay in Singapore was just one week, and my island destinations were limited to areas where I could travel by bus and MRT. But as I previously mentioned, my Singapore host kindly drove me to the old Ford Motor Factory (the historic surrender site of the British to Imperial Japan) and Lim Chukan Jetty, where you view Malaysia across the Johore Strait. This Lim Chukan Jetty seems to be one of the last few surviving wooden jetties used as docks for the offshore kelongs (seafarers' villages built on stilts) and aqua-farms. We drove through an intricate maze and rows of cemeteries to reach the jetty and narrowly exited out of the tangled waterways and the army training camp. I was reminded that Singapore has a draft mandate.

On this trip, I picked up a new word “Kiasu", which I thought was antiquated as in Singlish, if not anachronistic. Kiasu comes from Chinese “Pah Shu” (Mandarin) and “Kia Su (Hokkien), meaning “fear of losing” or "hate to lose." The competitive spirit beyond the fear factor is referred to as one of the top values and behavioral traits of Singaporeans. No wonder economic prosperity and political stability are associated with this national mindset. This philosophy has helped guide them in competition and negotiations, and led to success in getting the most out of every transaction. The per capita GNP exceeded Japan’s long ago. Perhaps it also made them immune to criticism. I would like to see their Kiasu curbed slightly and shift their focus toward altruism for their neighbors.

I started to read Catherine Lim’s novel “Rice Bowl” (first edition "Times London" in 1984), the winner of the first Singapore literature prize. The story is about politics, imperialism and race, set at the time of the Vietnam War. I found her book equally exciting as reading Lee Kuan Yew's autobiography. The names of venues are all very familiar to me now. 'Rice Bowl' per Singlish dictionary is a lifesaver, the source of man’s survival.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Osechi For Sale

A question raised at a recent Toastmasters meeting was “How do you sell Osechi (celebratory New Year's food specialties) if you are an Osechi salesman?"

Hmmm, a very good question. I was out of the country for many years. I felt guilty seeing my wife struggling to prepare Osechi when materials were hard to obtain.

Osechi is very different from everyday Japanese meals. It is not even listed in the restaurant menus. I vaguely know what Osechi is, as my family has always set it up for the New Year’s. I belong to those who might have 'Osechi-phobia'. I picked up a couple of Osechi items, like Tazukuri, which is candied sardines, Namasu, which is sliced Daikon pickle with Ozoni, the rice cake, but I stay away from the rest - all the sweets and goodies.

Osechi should represent UNESCO approved Japanese Washoku dietary culture. If you explore Osechi, you could get the essence and soul of Washoku. However, the weight is more on tradition and rituals, all dishes necessarily devoted to auspicious expectations. In other words, materials and seasonings are selective consisting of kelp, abalone, sea urchin, herring-roe, prawn, fish paste, chestnut, lotus root, burdock, black bean and mixed veggies.

As a Noh song student once, I’m familiar with the word “Sechie” from the famous “Tsuru Kame, Crane & Tortoise” song. Sechi or Setsu taking off honorific O, is seasonal divide days, such as 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 5-5, 9-9. The Imperial Court started “Sechie”, religious rituals during the Nara period, during the 8th Century, for prayers and thanksgiving for the season’s harvest and foods found from the mountains and sea. As time passed, this celebration permeated into the Samurai class in Kamakura and Kyoto and into the Edo period, down to the general public, with particular emphasis on 1-1, the New Year’s celebration.

The recipe and ingredients of Osechi dishes vary a little by district but basically they are the same, handed down for generations. They should feature proactive and forward looking life values, such as happiness and fortune, prosperity and wealth, success and promotion, security of property, health and longevity, perpetuation of descendants, strong family bond and solidarity, all authentically cooked and served in a fancy lacquer Jubako, the multi-layered boxes. The Japanese believe that luck comes in multitude by box layering.

I used to see three layers, but learned that four layers are formal and often five layers (the top often left empty to beckon future happiness), depending on circumstances. Normally, the festive and sake companion dishes are at the bottom, grilled, stewed, or vinegared side dishes in the second, sea or river produce in the third, mountain produce in the fourth. Arrival of these boxes are rather new, right after World War II perhaps with advertising commercials from department stores.

Today, I saw the relevant newspaper survey polls; 52% yes, 48% no, to the question - "Do you prepare Osechi?" Now those who said "no" were questioned "why". 42% of men and 26% of women answered "felt no need to make it special even for the New Year." Hmmm, again! They are from a different generation.

Osechi had a great meaning when shops were all closed for 10 days or so, and when fridges were novelties in most homes. Housewives made everything by hand, making them to last longer; baking and adding vinegar. Now they are nostalgic scenes of the past, because ready-made Osechi is available at nearby convenience stores. I understand the competitions had become keener with the participation of the Post Office sales force.

With the increase of part-time laborers, many stores are open now even during New Year's holidays. There are people who don’t take holidays. It means households need not prepare preserved foods for the New Year celebrations any more.

I hope I have given you some 'food for thought' with New Year's Day approaching quickly.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 2

He who plants a tree, plants hope. (Anonymous)

Upon sending my e-mail inquiry, the Singapore Botanical Garden (SBG) replied almost immediately "Greetings from the Singapore Botanic Gardens and thank you for writing to us. The distance between Bukit Timah Gate and Tanglin Gate is approximately 2.3 km if you follow the blue dotted route marked in the attached map.” I was impressed with the speed and sincerity of the reply. The dotted line is a meandering road inside the garden. If a straight diagonal line is drawn, I figured it was about a 2 km stretch between north and south ends of the park. The Bukit Timah (tin hill in English) Road runs into the north gate and the MRT stop and is the longest road running from north to south of the island.

The Bukit Timah pamphlet I picked up at the old Ford Motor factory, the historic surrender site of the British to Japan (my host drove me there on the 4th day), offers quite a lot of information. The 163 meter Bukit Timah Hill is the highest point in Singapore and it was where the Shonan Shrine was built. Today the area is a nature reserve along with the neighboring Bukit Batok Nature Reserve.

One of my hobbies is to visit old trees. I visited many exceptional trees - redwood, sequoia and Moreton Bay Fig in California and others in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan. The Bukit Timah pamphlet read: "The number of plant species growing in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is more than in the whole of North America and at the same time, Singapore's oldest tree, a 400 year-old Seriya Shorea curtisii Tree is also found here. This tree is possibly the Temak tree that gave Bukit Timah its name."

My visit to SBG was through the Nassim Main Gate, mid-point on the east-side right by a taxi stand where the sightseeing bus stops, and near the Visitor Center and National Parks Board Headquarter. Luckily I got the "Tall Tales book" at the visitor center that had the well documented heritage trees trail guide. There are about 30 numbered trees and I just followed the directions. The names were new to me. They are Temak, Kapok (National Tree of Puerto Rico), Saya, Jelaw (47 meters tall, currently the tallest tree at SGB. common in Malaysia) and "Tembusu." Tembusu is a distinctive tree to Singapore, not found in Malaysia. The tree is featured as part of the Garden City on the back of SG 5 dollar note. (See photo). I know the orchid is the national flower of Singapore but decided to forego seeing the flowers for more exploration of trees of palm valley, around the lakes, with fancy names like Swan and Symphony.

There's one more tree I loved at SGB - the Senegal Mahogany. On June 1963, Lee Kuan Yew, the Father of Singapore, launched a national tree planting campaign. It marked the beginning of five decades of greening efforts that have built Singapore's reputation as a city in the garden. To commemorate Tree Planting Day on November 2, 1980, he took a hoe himself and planted a Senegal Mahogany Heritage Tree. I was seeing it 35 years after Mr. Yew's planting. It grew to be a huge tree.

I managed to take a hurried tour of the Chinese and Japanese Gardens in Jurong on the west end of Singapore. Jurong is a man-made island (connected to multiple small islands), based on the Jurong District Master Plan to bring together port, shipyard, chemical plant complex, and light and heavy industries. Two gardens are on Jurong Lake. The first is a Chinese Garden partially completed with pagoda and tortoise / turtle sanctuary and rows of statues of Confucius, Qu Yuan, etc. The neighboring Japanese Garden was closed but I saw many stone lanterns and Bonsais laid out in the distance, probably still in the preparation stages. The flat and open gardens were surrounded by high rise apartments. It was quite a sight. The two gardens will surely become a breathtaking park when completed.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Amazing Singapore Part 1

As soon as I was welcomed by a Canadian couple and host whom I befriended in Tokyo and Canada, I started my exploration of Singapore right away. My stay with them was 4 days, excluding arrival and departure dates. They live in a gated condo near the Botanical Garden. My host works in Shenton Way, Singapore's Wall Street, so we took a bus together at 8 AM and I was at Singapore City Hall area by 8:30. Morning rush was about to start but all the stores were closed until 10:00 AM. Church was where I could be alone in the morning.

My first three days were visiting l) St. Andrew's Cathedral; 2) Raffles Hotel (Museum & Arcade), the last bastion of the British colonialism, saved by Lee Kuan Yew, Father and the past Prime Minister of Singapore for over 30 years, almost like the Gate Formosa in Malacca saved by Sir Raffles; and 3) a nearby Starbucks or McDonald's for coffee.

I strolled the deserted park at St. Andrew's on the first and third day, and spent over an hour in a pew in the cathedral the second day, trying to see if the cathedral was lost during World War II (it was an emergency hospital - found a cathedral brochure written in Japanese), Raffles for two hours for the first day for picture taking, souvenir shopping the second day and befriended a Japanese mother and daughter at Thompson's Thai silk store the third day, etc.

One thing I learned was my misconception about Sir Raffles on this trip. I had thought Raffles was knighted after his Singapore accomplishment, which was incorrect. His knighthood was bestowed upon when he returned to England from his assignment as Lieutenant-Governor of Java, ill and crestfallen having lost his first wife Olivia. In 1816 he wrote and published a book entitled "The History of Java" describing the history of the island from ancient times. In 1817 he was knighted by the prince regent. Then he was appointed Governor-General of Bencoolen. Sir Raffles set sail all refreshed to take the post with his new wife Sophia.

In the afternoon, I took hop-on / hop-off sightseeing buses, first visiting the Esplanade, Music and Drama Theatres on the Bay, nicknamed "Durian" for its shape by local Singaporeans. (I learned this theater was chosen as one of the 1001 Buildings you must see before you die by Mark Irving). I'm glad I got to see it. It was amazing!

Then I visited the ArtScience Museum and Marina Bay Sands, breathtaking twin buildings with feng shui motif. The former brought to mind blossoming lotus, and the latter, three monolith towers connected together at the top with an enormous deck. Some people see it as Noah's Ark but I wonder. It is an iconic design that completely transforms the skyline - convention center, hotel, restaurant, casino, all in one. You can tell Las Vegas Sands was involved. The day I visited the ArtScience Museum it featured works by American photographer Annie Leibovitz. There were about 200 photos exhibited including those of John Lennon/Yoko Ono and celebrities like Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt and many others.

The Garden by the Bay on reclaimed land has been raised with what they call SuperTrees - huge artificial structures shaped like palms. I had planned to visit Botanical Garden so I hurried on.

I completed one clockwise circuit on the bus that took about an hour that included a visit to upstream Singapore River, the Botanical Garden and the hotels on Orchard Road. My ticket was valid for 24 hours. I used it for three rounds and stopped to view the Botanical Garden and ate at a fancy restaurant on Orchard Road in the evening. I enjoyed the great bus service and sightseeing.

Encountered during the bus ride were a couple of smile-provoking public art sculptures. I was too slow with my camera so I have no photos of them, but I found one photo from the database of Singapore Public Art. It is called "Momentum" (2007) - about 20 meters tall and 10 meters in diameter. I surmise it is the modern Tower of Babel. The sculptor is David Gerstein of Israel. He might have won the competition for the work. In surveying the above data, I found Singapore is now full of public art. I thought of Taiwan's Ju Ming who struggled with his son to create a private sculpture park near Taipei mountain village. Singapore, as a nation, is planning to fill the island with an abundance of public art.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tribute to TM Ishimatsu

Weep no more my lady
Oh! Weep no more today
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home far away

- Kentucky State Song by Stephen Foster

The third Monday in September is a unique Japanese national holiday which honors and shows respect to the elderly. A few years ago, our neighborhood started inviting me to a special district luncheon with entertainment provided by a local high school music band or drum corp. My wife Tamiko received the same invitation this year. The couple sitting across the table from us were our acquaintances. Tamiko knew they owned a dance studio and asked them, "Are the Ishimatsus going to demonstrate their dancing again soon?" Apparently Tamiko knew that the Ishimatsus came last year as the winner of the All Kyushu ballroom senior pair dance competition. The studio owner's response was, "We heard he passed away." After an awkward silence, Tamiko and I both uttered the same surprise, "But he was so young."

Yasutaka Ishimatsu joined the Kitakyushu Toastmasters before the turn of the century. He was the eighth President serving his term from 2004 to 2005. A mechanical engineer by profession, he worked at a Japanese subsidiary in Louisville, Kentucky for six years and returned to Kitakyushu. Ishimatsu was a breath of fresh air to our club with his serene smile and playful wit and humor. I found in him something our club was missing. We welcomed him and I enjoyed many of his speeches related to Kentucky. He traveled with us to a number of Toastmaster events and contests and was a popular Kitakyushu representative.

Kentucky is one of the states I never stepped foot in. The closest cities I visited were Cincinnati, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; and Indianapolis, Indiana. In late 1980s, Toyota built its Camry plant in Kentucky and soon related companies flocked there and clustered around them. We learned many things from TM Ishimatsu such as the Kentucky Derby, how Kentucky’s Lexington city was named after Lexington, Massachusetts and why Stephen Foster's Kentucky Home became literally the State Song.

One speech that impressed me was about the concert he brought to Lexington through his personal connections. He learned that the Japanese celebrity writer/singer Tokiko Kato was going to be performing at Carnegie Hall in 1988 (see her album cover at top). He knew his boss in New York was the brother to Tokiko and convinced him that that Tokiko's visit to Kentucky could not only boost the friendship between Kentucky and Japan, but also help ease and soften the local anti-Japanese feeling. With the go ahead obtained a year ahead of time, he succeeded in completing all the necessary preparations, getting cooperation from all the Japanese expatriates, including Toyota, who doubted at first if she would ever come.

The day came. Tokiko's song - "Shiretoko Jojo", "One million roses" and of course, Foster's "Home on the range" and state song overwhelmed and charmed the audience gathered at the Transylvanian University Hall. After the concert and reception, Ishimatsu tried to hand her an envelope in appreciation. She did not accept it. She thanked him personally by shaking his hands saying "I hope my concert tonight will help make you all succeed!" He said he became her biggest fan that day.

Transylvania University is a private university in Lexington, Kentucky. It was founded in 1780, making it the first university in Kentucky and among the oldest in the United States.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Malay Journey - Part 2

"Straight Trans Malay Road Amidst the valleys of lustered oil palms" (Haiku by riodan)

Monday August 25, 2014, I took a transnational bus, with a spider mark on the front glass, from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. I avoided Sunday traffic to avoid Johorbaru, shoppers coming back from Singapore crossing the border, reminding me of the San Diego / Tijuana border crossings, which I knew well. I changed hotels from KLCC to Pudraya Sentral so that I could walk to the bus terminal early in the morning with the ticket I had purchased on Sunday.

The first bus was to depart at 7:30 AM. I was at the terminal at 7:00 AM. The huge oblong building was deserted, contrary to the weekend jostling crowds. Travelers go up to the second floor which has numbered gates with waiting chairs and shops and food stalls. It was one of those store ladies who asked her neighbor to watch her store and guided me to the upper floors to the bus ticket counter. She was pregnant and I felt guilty to force her to hurry upstairs. She was so kind to me, a stranger.

At around 7:20 AM a woman came and opened the descending stair gate. I immediately followed her. She simply said wait there on the deck. It's a dimly lit first level floor with islands of platforms. The sectional concrete walls block the view of the entire floor. I felt I was in a large empty warehouse. No one was there at 7:30 AM and I became a little nervous. A nondescript man approached me and ordered me to move to a different numbered deck. He was a dispatcher. Again, nobody appeared at the designated deck. Nothing happened at 7:45. About close to 8:00, one guy joined me and asked me some questions I didn't understand. About 8:10, the bus finally arrived at the deck. The bus, after idling for another 10 minutes, left Pudraya, made a big left turn, headed for KL Lake Garden, passing the Amphitheatre and National Musuem and getting onto the highway heading south.

KL-Malacca was my third journey on the bus. I had plenty of time to compose my Haiku, watching hillsides all covered with oil palms. The bus was traveling through the two states south of Malacca, Pahang and Johor, which use close to 20% of their land for oil palm farms. Yes, Malaysia is the top palm oil producer and exporter in the world. The palm oil industry overtook the rubber industry by modernizing its mills with higher efficiency and an ecology friendly approach - reducing the output of methane and holding wastes to a minimum.

The bus had one stop at a place called Yong Peng to change drivers. It is an interchange town, 100 km or 70 miles from Singapore. Most of the passengers got off before the border. Only two passengers and I went through customs. After crossing the Johor Strait through a kilometer long causeway bridge, the bus took the Changi Airport route and down Nichola Highway. Finally, we circled the low rise shopping centers reached the end destination. The entire trip took five hours plus.

I had no idea where I was but happened to find a Japanese restaurant and went in. Ordering lunch, I asked a woman manager for the nearest bank and hotel. She also agreed to keep my luggage awhile. I walked free of luggage to exchange currency and obtain sightseeing info. This walk really helped me 'get my feet wet' in Singapore I was at the area called Bugis. The Hotel I visited was V Hotel, at MRT Lavendar. I even had a chance to drop into the Singapore Visa Office where I saw many young people walking in after a security check.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Malay Journey

"It was 1405, on a spring dawn. Three short years after Parameswara founded his empire (where a mouse deer outwitted a dog), the Sultanate of Malacca was still in an unstable infancy. In the south, the expanding Majapahit Empire was a threat, as were the Siamese, who sought revenge for the death of their regent Temagi at Temasek (today’s Singapore). As day broke across Malacca’s natural harbor, an unspeakable dread must have swept over all on shore. Ships larger than anything afloat, as far as the eye could see, had arrived in the night. Hundreds of ships, a fleet crewed by over 27,000 men, silken sails set by a forest of teak masts across the horizon. Treasure ships, as much as 125m long and weighing 1,500 tons, securely guarded by five-mast Fuchuan warships and supported by a host of transports, supply ships, and patrol boats. The Chinese had arrived."

- Malacca’s First Visitors by Mike Street

The diorama exhibit I saw at the Cheng Ho (1371-1433) Cultural Museum, Malacca, gave a vivid account of the Ming Dynasty's Armada's virgin voyage described by Mike Street. It preceded the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Atlantic Ocean, the discovery of the New Continent and the Age of the Exploration by European powers. Malacca became the archetypical trade port of Malay, on the mouth of the river, people congregating for trade, fishing, and farming under the Muslim Sultanate.

Admiral Cheng Ho's mission was to deliver Ming Dynasty's message and gifts to enter into amicable trade relations with the Sultanate, who in response, presented tributes and sought Ming's protection and influence against Siam's (Thailand) offense. This reciprocal relationship worked well and lasted until Cheng Ho's 7th and the last voyage between 1405 and 1433. Ho reached Mogadishu and Brava in eastern Africa on the 6th and 7th voyages.

Admiral Cheng made Malacca his Armada's strategic port-of-call, primarily for waiting for change in monsoon winds, and had constructed warehousing facilities. He died from illness on the 7th voyage and the Ming Dynasty discontinued the voyage because of the exorbitant costs.

At the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, a small vase exhibited in a glass enclosure attracted attention of a few visitors. I wondered what it was. Contained in it was his male piece. Seemingly he was an Arab boy castrated under captivity in Yunan to serve as a page for one of Ming's nobles. Growing into an active lanky young man and a good fighter in the war, he won the trust of Yong Le Emperor and quickly rose up the ranks. Malacca showed special attachment to Cheng Ho with the Cultural Museum dedicated to him.

Thriving Malacca drew ambitions of European powers and was taken over, first by Portugal (1511), second by Holland (1641), and third by England (1824). The defeated Sultanate retreated to Johor and Perak. They had to wait for the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) to learn how Malacca lost its luster to Penang and Singapore. There is one legendary episode that took place in 1810. Raffles happened to be in Malacca when the old Portuguese Fort was almost totally blasted by dynamite, as it was an eye-sore to the British. Because of Raffles' respect and passion for history, a Formosa Gate was said to have been spared from destruction. We would not see the gate today if he had not intervened. Close to this gate are the restored replica of the Sultanate Palace and Malay's Independence Hall, which was the British Malacca Club where the writer Somerset Maugham liked to visit. It was here that he found inspiration for some of his short stories.

I didn't have time for the Maritime Museum nor the Malacca River cruise, but glimpsed a life-size replica of the shipwrecked Portuguese "Flor do Mar" (Flower of the Sea), close to the Watermill, the tourists attraction of the river. On his return trip, the Portuguese Conquerer Alfonso de Albuguerque ran into a typhoon and lost the Flor de Mar, fully loaded with treasures, near northern Sumatra.

Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum was my last stop in the Jonker street area. I was attracted to the curious names. Baba is an immigrated Chinese boy and Nyonya is a local Malay girl. It was the home of the Chan family (rubber plantation owners) that housed over eight generations, built in 1861. It was a beautiful home inside, reflecting the hybrid life style and furniture of the Chinese, Malay, Indian and English. Outwardly, it looked no differently from the rows of the neighborhood houses, called shop houses with narrow frontage. I passed the Chan house a number of times. I later learned that the Dutch tax system based on frontage forced such housing structures. The tour required reservations in advance.

Today, the Chinese Malaysians occupy a quarter of Malay's total population, as the key working force of its economy. My old pen pal from Negeri Sembilan, about 90 km away, came to see me on my last Malacca night despite the rain storm, accompanied by her new husband. She is a Chinese Malaysian who is a PhD candidate and middle school vice principal. Her husband is an Indian sports journalist. The couple took me to a modern Malacca business center located more inland, to treat me to an excellent Chinese dinner.