A Travellerspoint blog

December 2008

National Museum of Singapore

sunny 30 °C
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The National Museum is a grand building
although it looks fairly puny in this shot

It was established by Sir Stamford Raffles himself as a library and musuem, but its interior has been dramatically updated since his day - lots of glass and steel. I spent the better part of Sunday wandering around. First stop was Robert Wilson's "Voom" exhibit, one that did very little for me. It was a sequence of what looked like still digital images on large TV screens; close attention revealed slight movements, even a very slight narrative in some cases (maybe all, I couldn't be bothered waiting). So, one of these showed Brad Pitt holding a gun, just standing there. After I don't know how long, he lifts the gun and fires (revealing it to be a water pistol). There's about a dozen of these, none impressive. I did score a photo of Steve Buscemi chewing, with a large carcase in front of him (he may be chewing a mouthful of it, who knows?):
(sorry about the flash - I hadn't worked out how to turn it off at that stage, damn flash new cameras!).

Next door was a much more interesting exhibition; photography of Taiwanese Chang Chien Chi who is concerned with the twinned notions of alienation and connection - the exhibit was called Doubleness, and had three sequences of photos. The first started with a couple of images of faces - to show how the Chinese read faces (by the location of moles) to discover character. [As a weird aside, I'm reading Orhan Pamuk's Black Book and a major part of that is about the history of face reading, where various parts of the face contain letters which can be read.] Anyway, the point of the mole reading is that the Taiwanese use these as the basis of arranging marriages between Taiwanese men and Vietnamese woman, around 80,000 per year. There were more than a hundred photos showing participants in the process; starting with the marriage guidance each "couple" is given, then he shows the auditioning (a bit backwards, I know) progressing through them submitting their documents for approval and on to the wedding itself. All of these wedding photos have the same backgrounds - it is later revealed that there are heaps of couples all lined up at the same table, being married simultaneously. The whole process starts on about the Tuesday and finishes on the Friday, with about a 10% failure rate. Not bad, when the whole thing looks like a shopping trip.

A second sequence was simply of men chained together in pairs; there is a monastery/asylum in Taiwan to which problem men (drug addicts, drunks, the mentally unwell) are sent. There they are simply chained to a more stable man - the only time they are not chained is when they sleep. No-one is ever released, so it is not really about rehabilitation; families simply pay to get rid of a problem. Once there, the guys are put to work - the place is also a huge chicken farm. Then his third sequence was about Taiwanese guys who head off to America to make a better life for their families.

The biggest part of the museum was devoted to a history of Singapore; this was suprisingly lame, as it was very short on artefacts, mainly a bunch of photos but with an interesting audio commentary so you could work out what was going on.

The other component was four themed sections (fashion, film, photography and food). I found the food section fascinating - videos showing how some of the classic Singaporean meals are made, the migration patterns that produced them, a few artefacts (such as the kind of cart used as a mobile kitchen) and then a room devoted to the ingredients and utensils

Posted by NZBarry 15:49 Archived in Singapore Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Singapore Art Museum

sunny -17 °C
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So, I had a bit of time spare in the weekend and a desire to do something other than stay curled up in my nicely air-conditioned (albeit tiny) hotel room watching reruns of McGyver and High Chapparel (I know, they were very tempting!). In my wanders to get food, I'd seen both the Singapore Art Museum
and the National Museum of Singapore, and they both appealed.

The Art Museum had three collections on the go: one (the first I saw) I hated. It was the Daimler Art Collection, which is a bunch of modernist paintings (it also included the Andy Warhol "Cars" group of works (about which the New York Times said when reviewing it in 1988 there was a lot of filler and that it was hard not to feel embarrassed for the Guggenheim in exhibiting it)). If I quote some of the description of one group of works, it might become clear why I hated it:

"the pictorial elements, detached from any narrative or illustrative context, should mean only themselves, and should be simple, precise and controllable..."

And then there was a mention of "Zero Art", which is supposed to be minimalist and defy interpretation; the

"viewer was supposed to observe and appreciate the minimal object for its own qualities without deriving any additional meaning from the work."

So there were a few photos I kind of liked,DSC_01392.jpg and a couple of Warhol's car pictures - the video on endless loop of a Mercedes driving up, three women getting out and unloading a whole bunch of shoes from the boot and then bundling one of the women in; not so much. Really,
these chairs could have just as easily been an exhibit!

Then I went to the APAD exhibition, which was of contemporary and slightly older (back to the 1950's) art by Malays. No pictures, sadly; I was busted by a security guard as I was about to take a shot. He was very nice about it and proved to be a very amiable and helpful fellow. This exhibition I liked a lot; clearly representational, rather than zero, art, with lots of colour and images of local life and icons. One particularly cute and suggestive painting was called "Tea With Mr M" where someone was sitting down to drink tea with a single M&M (with a Nike swipe just in case we missed the point).

Going into the third (Korean Contemporary Art) I was blown away by a picture simply called "Pencil 3" (by Hong Kyoung Tock). For a start, it was huge, covering an entire wall. It was comprised simply of pencils and pens, millions of them, very bright but at points merging into one another and at others creating patterns. This is a smaller version:
He also did something called Library 3, with lots and lots of books piled up, again very bright and clean, but with some macabre touches: animal skulls lurking in amongs the books, headless mannequins and a kind of shrine covered in toys. All quite disturbing. Here's another from his library sequence:

Then there was something done by Lee Lee Nam: he took a very classical image, such as a wee shack on an island in a river, digitalised it and then displayed it on a big screen TV. But then you'd notice subtle and very slow movements - waves rippling, a boatman punting by, a light going on. I was entranced. The third thing that got me were a few apparently simple images of people in ordinary life; when I got closer, I saw that they were blocks several centimetres deep, and the images of the people had actually been carved or moulded into the blocks: they effect was that as you walked past, you'd swear they were turning to look at you.

During my wander through, I was accosted twice by people wanting to survey me, both funny in their own way. The guy had a set of questions, but decided he could fil my answers in for me, that everything was good or very good. The woman was much more thorough, I think we talked for more than half an hour. About twenty minutes in, she realised her recorder was not, in fact recording: "no matter, I'll do a rough version iof what you've said". Some of her questions were odd, such as "If Singapore Art Museum was a person, what sort of person would they be? Would you talk to this person?" Answer: "An older person, male I think, a great respecter of tradition but open to new things, might even wear some bling and manage to look gracious with it."

SAM was about all I could cope with, so instead of hitting the Museum, I took a wander through Fort Canning Park,
which unfortunately no longer has a fort, just its gate.

Posted by NZBarry 07:58 Archived in Singapore Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Back To Singapore

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I was sitting in the outdoor eating area in KL, drinking my frozen beer, and it occured to me that I didn't really want to leave. I won't say that I was having a good time, as I was working pretty hard, but I was feeling pretty contented and happy which is a good place to be. But earlier in the week, I'd ventured down to KL Sentral Stesen and bought myself a train ticket, so I kind of had to go. I was a little shocked when buying the ticket, as the person behind the counter seemed to be asking my age in order to find out if I qualified for an old person's discount. I was even more shocked a few minutes later. I was sitting up on the second floor, dining on what I normally eat when in foreign climes (donuts and oversweet orange juice) when I saw a train. Not so unusual, in a train station, to be sure, but this one was above my head and seemed to be right in the station concourse. Turns out it was one of KL's suburban Light Rail Network trains.

So the train ride back was pretty uneventful, with little variation in the scenery, just a few stops for the various towns. I checked out the dining car (pitiful) so stuck my nose in my book: Orhan Pamuk's Black Book. It is quite a bit more readible than the other of his I read (Snow) and seems to have a definite plot (a fellow comes home to find his wife has left him so goes in search of her (very Murakami)) but takes lots of detours on the way.

I need not have rushed back: I went out to the University on Monday and was more than a little confused to find the coffee shop shut, although there were people sitting at the tables outside. Then I discovered that the Faculty doors were locked; it was not till I got to the library that I learnt that it was a public holiday, Hari Raya Haji (i.e. to mark the Muslim pilgrims to Mecca). I had no idea Singapore would be officially closed for it (not that the shops noticed, it seemed to be business as usual for them). Since then, my week wasn't exactly the subject for a thrilling travel narrative: I worked hard and very productively, I wandered around in the evening and then used the free internet at the hostel to organise the next stages of the trip (I've even scored a free return bus trip, between Birmingham and London). I've hardly said a word to anyone since I got back, but again it has been a pretty good week.

Tuesday I did get to go to the movies at the National Museum of Singapore, part of their World Cinema series. This one was a Scandinavian black and white film made in 1966 called Hunger in which this fellow has no money (we never learn why) and is desperate to make some, but honourably: he tries pawning anything he can, and is trying to make his way by writing. But such is his pride that when he buys a candle and is given change for money he never hands over, he gives it away. An odd wee film, but curiously compelling. Friday I made the mistake of going down Orchard Road for my dinner; absolute hordes of people, and all of the half decent looking places to eat had long queues of people wating to get in. Not my idea of fun at all.

Posted by NZBarry 06:02 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)


storm 28 °C
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An 8:00 a.m. bus is never my idea of fun, and this one, to Melaka, was particularly tedious – straight up the motorway with an unending string of some sort of very frondy but short palm tree. The only interesting feature was crossing the border: in Singapore, they are very keen to stamp out smoking but the change in Malaysia was made evident when even the Immigration Officer was smoking. Another change I noticed fairly quickly was hte increased language barrier. Hanging out at NUS, and many parts of Singapore, it was common to hear English spoken all around me and to have most things signposted in English. In Malaysia, not so much; it was particularly difficult to identify food.

The bus dropped me at a fairly depressing looking mall - not a good look for one of the most recently minted World Heritage areas. My guest house was very nice, Number Twenty, in a minimalistic sort of way; all my room had was a bed, but with nicely polished floors and white walls. It was right in the middle of Melaka’s most famous address, Jonkers Walk, a street which turns into a night market during the weekend. That meant that whenever I wanted to go anywhere, I had to fight against the hordes of meandering sightseers – by the time I was left, I was wondering if I could fit airhorns or use some sort of stick to keep people moving. Probably not the done thing. During the day, Melaka was just hot so after a bit of a walk around on the Saturday I had to retire from the fray. Sunday, I was up to beat the heat, wandered around the waterfront area and the nearby new and very flash mall but something I ate (probably the curried chicken that looked like it might have been simmering for a month or two) caused my system to melt down and again, it was a return to barracks. So, not the most spectacularly successful of visits.

I had originally thought that I might spend quite some time in Melaka, if I was staying somewhere I could work, but it didn’t feel right so I popped up to Kuala Lumpur on the Monday. Good idea. Last time I was there, I stayed at the hotel right on the concourse of the main railway station. Things have changed in the meantime – for a start, it is no longer the main station, but the Heritage Station Hotel
is still there, a bit of a gloomy old pile, but it gave me lots of space and was quiet. Perfect for the work I had to do, so I stayed nearly a week. Breakfast was laid on in the dining room

In the evening, I’d strike out in a different direction to see some sights and find something to eat. The one day I went for a wander at lunch time, there was such a storm it caused a number of landslides around KL. I don't think anyone was killed, but I did hear of 13 cars being trapped.

It is a bit of a cliché, but my favourite area turned out to be Bukit Bintang, the primary destination of tourists in KL. It has a whole bunch of posh hotels, about half a dozen more or less grand shopping malls, bars, cafes, restaurants. Walking up the street sees you have about fifty different placards thrust in your face, offering various massage options. Then there’s the wandering vendors of DVD’s, watches and who knows what else along with the street performers (the silver midget
and the gold gentleman seem to be long-standing features) and throngs of locals and tourists. So, for my last night in KL I decided to move into the area, into the Piccolo Hotel – pretty undistinguished from the outside, but very very nice on the inside.DSC_0137.jpg At the place I went for my dinner,
I had the coldest beer I have ever had; it poured OK but then froze in the glass and started to smoke!

Posted by NZBarry 05:30 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)


sunny 30 °C
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The flight over was pretty standard; people rave about Singapore Airlines but they didn’t seem that special to me. Formalities at Changi were dealt with very swiftly and I was on the MRT and up in Little India before I knew it. My hostel DSC_0105.jpg is on top of Mt Emily; although it is only a very little mountain, in the heat and with my travelling library, I nearly died. Such a sight must be common at checkin here, as they didn't even blink at the appearance of a near-dead fellow. It is a very good hostel, and my room mates have been most congenial.

Since I have been here twice and will be here for quite a while, I didn't rush out and see stuff. Besides, there is very little here I actually want to see; the Duck Tour, Sentosa Island and Jurong Bird Park don't really do it for me. The National Museum was closed for refurbishment last time I was here, so it is on the list and while wandering around, I have come across the Art Museum, which looks good.

Maybe my mission can be to find my favourite food court. I have been a little disturbed to find that two of the places I enjoyed the most (Bugis and Raffles) have been completely refurbished, and not in a good way; they've gone upmarket and with branded shops, rather than a sequence of hawker stalls with a cook or two at each producing their own speciality. Ah well, Foodland is still the same - as soon as I recovered from my arrival, I popped in and had a big Tiger and Char Siew Pork.

Bright and early, at lunch time on Monday, I turned up for work. First, I had to go through a rather quaint little ceremony to get my library card; I gave the staff $40 cash, they wrote out a cheque for $40 to NUS, in a NUS chequebook, and posted it off to the NUS central administration. My card will turn up "soon". I'm not sure I needed to bother - the library staff seemed quite OK with giving me entry anyway, and were very nice about giving me a tour. I was heartened to see they do have a New Zealand collection, but it was the very last thing we came across in the tour. The campus is rather pleasant, with two quadrangles:

This caught me out for the first couple of days. There is a student lounge in the lower one, and I thought "hmmm. very small campus, so that's probably the only place to eat". It had been hijacked by some Executive Management course, and so I went without. On the Tuesday, I grew so hungry, I popped across the the Shell station, and had pot noodles on their foodcourt - not exactly the world class academic image I've been trying to create. But I grew curious, and so wandered around campus and found not only a coffee shop, but also a big cafeteria with its own foodcourt. I won't put it on my list of favourites, but I'm so glad it is there.

Since I had only booked the hostel through to the Thursday, and pricing in Singapore is fairly high, I've decided to try my luck in Malaysia. I always had my first weekend away booked to be in Melaka, but I'm going to check it out, to see if I can stay there and do my work there for a while.

Posted by NZBarry 05:26 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

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