Monday, November 24, 2014

Amazing Singapore

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.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Thu Bon River Part 2

Have you ever heard of Cham or the Champa Kingdom? It was the name the kingdom was referred to by Marco Polo. He had traveled through Cham on his way back to Italy but Hoi An did not exist when he passed through. Polo wrote that the Cham Kingdom was conquered by the Yuan Dynasty and they had to offer 20 elephants tribute to Khans annually. This was not true. Yuan Dynasty, trying to expand south to Malay and Java, invaded Cham a number of times. Cham defended itself, once together with Dai Vet. General Tran Hung Dao repelled the Mongols using guerrilla tactics. His statue stands in downtown Hochimin square. Eventually Champa King made the act of vassalage to the Mongols and soon lost sovereignty thereafter and disappeared.

It was the Chams who opened the silk and spice roads via the ocean, trading with the neighboring countries, establishing a base in Hoi An as a trading port. The Chams prospered from 7th Century to 15th Century in Central Vietnam, with Dong Hoi, near Hue, to the north and Phan Thiet to the south. They had constant conflicts with Dai-Vets in the north and Kmel in the south.

Chams are found today in Cambodia and Thailand but are a minority in Vietnam. They started out originally as Shaivists and Hinduists but later more Chams converted to Islam. My Son (pronounced mi: sa:n, meaning beautiful mountain), 60 kilometers upstream and in the middle of the Thu Bon Valley, is where the Chams' sacred sanctuary ruins quietly sit, a cluster of over 70 Hindu temples, discovered by French archaeologists and recognized by UNESCO the same year as Hoi An.

I took the weekend tour on a fully loaded microbus. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a 50 acre site and is too wide an area for me to cover. Instead, I chose My Son for easy walks and for a fun boat ride of the Thu Bon River on the way back. My Son temples were partially bombed during the Vietnam War until U.S. Congress stopped the bombing to save the cultural treasures. The September 2014 issue of Vietnam Airline "Heritage" Magazine features "My Son" and "Chmpa Culture." It was full of beautiful shots of "Di Tich Cham." That is why I chose the photo of a 3-D wall of Phuoc An Hotel dining room where I stayed for this post.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kuala Lumpur Fun Night

On behalf of the ToastMasters from Sri Lanka, I am glad that you enjoyed the evening as much as we did. For most of us, it was the first time we enjoyed a fellowship with two international communities. Hopefully next time we can organize an event of a longer duration.

The team from our end that was involved in organizing the event was me, Arshad Mohideen and Trishma Pinto. We would be delighted in getting involved in whatever capacity as Toastmasters united, wherever we are in the world and whatever background we come from.

Please do keep in touch and I hope you will at some time in the future have the opportunity to visit our country, which to us is Paradise.

Warm regards

- Ajit De Soyza

Toastmasters - What expectation did you have when you booked your flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in August? Myself, as a repeat attendee, I looked forward to the very last event of the Convention, tension running high with excitement and thrills when the winners' calls melt the silence into a roaring applause. The crowning of the 2014 World Championship of Public Speaking!

Secondly, be involved personally in the Board Member election campaign. I wore a Sri Lanka "Balraj" Button the day I arrived. He won and, coincidentally, Sri Lanka became the 2014 world champion.

Third, become friends and hobnob with Toastmasters from around the world. I was to meet a Canadian couple, introduced by my Canadian friend by names only. When I made my registration, I asked the registration staff if there is any way to locate them and, if at all possible, at which hotel they were staying. Their answer was not very promising with such a flood of travelers. The suggestion they made was to use the open message board on the 2nd floor. I posted my message but had doubts how effective it would be. Then I heard each regional conference was scheduled on the last day, and 'bingo', I found a way and we connected.

I wish to report one hell of a fun night I enjoyed, which combined the above 2 and 3 expectations. At the KL hotel where I stayed, I bumped into my fellow DTM Tamura, ex D76-DG, who invited me to join their Fun Night Bout. I joined him without knowing any details, but it was quite an event over and beyond my expectation. If anyone plans similar bouts in the future, this will be a great precedent to follow.

From L to R: Tamura, Floy and Ajit
When Tamura made his business trip late last year to Sri Lanka, he met Balraj Arunasalam who was running for 2nd VP at the KL Conference and he offered to help. What popped up during their conversation was a joint meeting of their respective home TM clubs with details to be worked out between Ajit De Soyza on the Sri Lanka side and Tamura on the Japanese side. Making a long story short, this idea developed into the Aug 22 "Fun Night", unknown unfortunately, to other Toastmasters.

The event was held at a hotel in Bukit Bintang, near Pudu Sentral (formerly Pudraya) where about 60 Toastmasters assembled. Basically there were 25 Japanese (from Kansai area, a dozen women who were clad in Kimono), 25 Sri Lankan and 10 Malaysian Toastmaster volunteers eager to meet, dine and enjoy each others company. Expenses were split: dinners (boxed Bento catered by the KL "Isetan" Japanese Department Store) borne by the Japanese; venue and drinks borne by Sri Lankans and Malaysians.

Dinner started with mingling and chatting. Toastmaster of the Fun Night was personable Trishma Pinto, the right person at the right place. Greetings and speeches were exchanged to cheers and chanting of Balraj.

Soon Tamura led a bell chime rhythm along with taped music and the Japanese Awa Dance theme featuring "Dancers are fools, Watchers are fools, if both are fools alike, why not dance" - started in a circle. Encouraged by this theme, Sri Lankans, Malaysians and even hotel restaurant workers all jumped into the dancing circle and danced for many, many rounds.

Then Sri Lankans and Malaysians answered the Awa Dance with their wonderful Group Chorus, including the local "Baila" song. It was a marvelous "Fun" night to remember for all Toastmasters who participated.

I wish to recognize preparation/coordination efforts of each group as per the following list given by Tamura. Thank you all very much.

Sri Lanka Coordinators:
Ajit De Soyza
Arshad Mohideen
Trishma Pinto
Malaysia Coordinator:
G. Subramaniam
(friend of Kenshi Suzuki, Osaka)
Japanese Coordinators:
Kay & Minoru Tamura
Kenshi Suzuki

Monday, September 29, 2014

Thu Bon River Part 1

Have you ever heard of Hoi An in Vietnam (Annan) in relation to the "Red Seal Boats" licensed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s? Probably not. Hoi An was the least known destination as compared to Luzon (Manila), Melacca, Macao, Ayuttaya (Thailand), Pattahi (Indonesia), etc. I heard the name from my Canadian friend who visited Vietnam in the late 1990s. He had lived in Kyushu before and likened Hoi An as the Nagasaki of Vietnam.

Look up the map of Thu Bon River Estuary. Today, the river mouth is clogged with sediment now, but 400 years ago, large boats could easily sail and be towed upstream and dock for unloading and loading along the river town Fafo (Hoi An), trading port for the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Dutch. Most astounding is we can see a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port circa 15th to 19th Century with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences that survived the disastrous Vietnam War.

An introductory book on Hoi An I purchased there was surprisingly published by Showa Women's University in Tokyo. I lived close to that university during my Tokyo days. The book said that Showa Women University compiled the catalog in English and Japanese to commemorate the opening of the World Heritage Hoi An Exhibition in 2000 as well as the 80th Anniversary of the University. Proceeds from the sale of the book were donated to the Hoi An People's Committee & Association of Hoi An Cultural/Agricultural Heritage. What a coincidence and beautiful story between Vietnam and Japan!

This book shows remnants of both Japanese and Chinese quarters, although no physical sign of any ‘Japanese-ness’ remain today, except the tombstone epitaphs and the bridge named "Japanese", which is a unique covered structure, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple annexed to one side. It is associated with a legend that a Japanese sword is buried in the bridge foundation to appease the monster dragon that caused so many ocean shipwrecks. The book also shows picture scroll illustrations in color of tow boats inside the estuary and local administration headquarters. These scrolls are now in the possession of a Japanese temple in Nagoya.

There were an estimated 1,000 Japanese in Hoi An at its peak. The boats departed Japan when wind from the north sent them down south, and returned to Japan when the monsoon sent them up north in the summer - a one way voyage taking about a month. Reportedly the Japanese merchants placed emphasis on time constrained procurements. As soon as the boats left, they placed orders to have goods ready in time for the next boat, and this meticulous business practice often forestalled and antagonized the competition. The voyages proved very profitable, but with risks to lives. So when the Tokugawa enforced a nationwide embargo, it favored the competition, the Dutch in particular, and hastened the decline of the Japanese town.

I strolled Tran Phu Street right after my arrival and ate lunch at the colonial looking Hoi An Hotel, introduced by my Canadian friend. The hotel is a little distance away from Thur Bon and on a narrow street (probably a one-way street) but very conveniently located. Almost all of the "must-see" locations are within walking distance. I first I looked for a post office to buy postage stamps, then bought a coupon to allow five visits to any heritage building, including temples and museums.

Almost 200-year old houses all feature narrow facades and shop fronts and went deep inwards. You can walk through to the open, breezy inner courtyard, which was well decorated, where you face the living quarters of the merchants. They were all renovated with encouragement from the Town Committee mentioned above. The houses are numbered for easy identification.

This post is dedicated to the hotel manager Phuoc and restaurant staff Hue and Trang who made my stay pleasant in Hoi An. Thank you for the special local banana pancake / crepe recipe. It was delicious.