Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Room With A View - San Marco, aka The Lighthouse

As I stood on the scales the other day it occurred to me that of all the, ahem, sacrifices we've been called on to make in order to leave our home and come to live in Singapore, perhaps the largest (and most rapidly expanding) has been my waistline. However, I've never been one to shirk my responsibilities, so purely in the interests of research, I found a new restaurant to try out last weekend with hubby. It's a tough job, but someones' got to do it.

San Marco is located on top of the Fullerton Hotel, down town on the river. The Fullerton is an iconic building in Singapore and was originally the General Post Office. It is an absolutely beautiful building and at night it looks stunning, bathed in light and reflected in the river. A pedestrian bridge links it with the opposite bank from where you can get a wonderful view. You can choose to either eat inside or on the terrace, although you do run the risk of being ogled by tourists as they walk along the river bank, which I think would be a little off-putting.

One of my favourite things about the Fullerton is the HUGE fresh flower arrangement they have on display in the main lobby. Each time we go we are stunned by the gorgeous display which is right at home in the opulent surroundings, which boast a towering atrium hung with chandeliers, large carp pools, waterfalls, and sweeping marble staircases. Living in Holland we always had fresh flowers in the house, as they are cheap, plentiful, and of excellent quality. In Singapore however they are a luxury item; too expensive for us to buy often plus between the heat and the rigours of air-conditioning they die very quickly. So I stand next to the huge bunch at the Fullerton, breathe deeply, and think of home instead.
We've tried the Saturday night buffet at the Fullerton before. However until last weekend we hadn't explored any of its other restaurants. San Marco is an Italian restaurant located on the roof. From the eighth floor you take a private lift to the restaurant which is on about the 10th floor I guess. Quite small with an intimate atmosphere, the 360 degree view of the city is simply stunning. It would be easy to rely on the view to bring in customers but fortunately the food was also superb. I won't bore you with the details but our starters (for me a warm sardine tart with a fabulously crispy base topped with a sundried tomato concoction, and hubby's lobster and crab stuffed cannelloni) were to die for.

To finish we opted for a cheese board and I have to say it is the BEST cheese board you will get in Singapore. It's worth going up there just for that. Honestly.
Topped off with great service from knowledgeable staff who took the time to discuss the food - and knew what they were talking about - it was an excellent meal. After we paid the bill we were about to head off when our waiter asked "would you like to take a look upstairs?".
Intrigued, we walked out into the warm night air, climbed a metal staircase, and were treated to a breath-taking view of the city - the photo above was taken up there. It was an unexpected treat which topped off a most enjoyable night. In fact I'd love to take a picnic up there some day. You may recognise the view if you watched the night time Formula 1 race as the cars whizzed past the hotel on the stretch of road you can see.
If you're looking for somewhere a bit special in the heart of the city, San Marco is definitely worth a visit. We'll be taking my Dad there when he passes through next week because this secret is just too good to keep to ourselves.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Getting A Creative Fix

Last week I did a silver and glass course which ran over two mornings at a place called Creative Escape. It's a shop house which has been converted into an artist's studio, and you can follow courses in everything from glass fusion, silver working and painting to paper making, quilting and everything in between.

Never having done anything remotely like this I wasn't terribly confident that I'd actually end up with anything I'd want to keep, let alone wear, but I have to admit I was pretty pleased with the result.
Creating cool pieces with glass fusion is ridiculously easy. You simply cut bits of coloured glass into pieces, layer them up on a base piece to make a nice pattern until the final result is 6 mm thick, then fire in a kiln. We returned the next day to work with the fired glass pieces by adding silver. This was way, way more difficult.
For this part we used silver clay which feels just like normal clay except of course it's quite pricey so you use as little of it as possible. It's incredibly fiddly trying to make small bits to go on jewellery and I'm not planning to do this again, although I'd definitely have another go at glass fusion. After you make your clay pieces you dry them briefly with a hair dryer, then fire them for a short time - only about 10 minutes - at 700 degrees. When you remove the pieces from teh kiln they are pure white, which is a little disconcerting. You then attack them with wire brushes and hey presto, the silver is hiding under the white outer layer.

Here you can see the final results: a rectangular piece with metalic green stripes on a black background, with silver threads wrapped over the top. I was trying to get an effect a bit like tree roots but a couple of them broke off as the silver is too thin.
The second piece is a metillic blue blob with gold flakes in the centre, cupped in what is supposed to be a silver leaf.
...And finally a simple pendant which I attached to a bezel I bought at the workshop as mine was way too ugly, then strung on a silver string I already had.
So there you go, if I can do it anyone can. Give it a go!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Ting Tings - That's Not My Name

You know how sometimes you hear a song and you just love it so much you keep playing it over and over on you iPod until your ears bleed and you probably induce brain damage? Well that's how I feel about this track from The Ting Tings, 'That's Not My Name'. Best played at maximum volume, especially if you are working out. It's not a fantastic video, so I recommend letting it completely download before cranking up the volume and listening to it, and I bet you can't stop youreself jiggling along to it.
The fact that music like this exists is the only possible reason that I can even considering getting on the rowing machine for a 5km session. I think the decibels drown out the pain.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Eye Don't Get It

Hardly a day goes by when I don't take a moment to think about how great it is not to have to wear glasses or contact lenses any more. Since getting my eyes lasered (see this post) I'm free from the hassle, expense, and discomfort of eyewear. Which is why I totally fail to understand one of the fashion crazes sweeping through Singapore: people with perfect vision who wear glasses just for fun. Ironically Singapore has one of the highest rates of myopia (short-sightedness) in the world.
In an article in the Straits Times this month Jocelyn Lee examined the odd fashion trend, asking whether these people - mostly aged between 15 and 25 - are being funky or fashion victims. Apparently the preppy geek look is in and the trend which started in London has spread to Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. Some optical shops in Sigapore now important large, thick-rimmed glasses to meet demand. They cost on average $30 - $90, including non-prescription lenses.
One student when interviewed said that the huge lenses of her thick-rimmed specs get foggy whenever she has hot food or drinks but said "I will continue to wear them as they make me look more outstanding in photos".
I can promise you that this is a trend I won't be following.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Life’s full of little surprises and a couple of days ago Niels decided to spring one on me just as I was trying to shoo the kids into the lift to catch the school bus. Seeing his gym bag ready to go must have jolted his still sleepy brain because out of the blue he announced: “My gym shoes don’t fit and if I have to wear bare feet I’m not allowed to do gym!”
The way his voice got faster and rose in pitch was some indication of the panic sweeping over him: for Niels to have to sit out his gym class would be worse than going the whole day without food. He LOVES gym, and anything involving physical activity. It’s truly hard to believe he came from the womb of a woman who detests sports with an equal passion. For me, even pelvic floor exercises constitute a work out. I hate to get all hot and sweaty – the only sports I’ve ever had classes for were swimming and aqua aerobics, because if you sweat in the water you can’t tell.
So here we were, with 30 seconds before the bus is due to arrive and Niels is telling me that the gym shoes I bought him just FOUR WEEKS AGO apparently no longer fit and we have a major crisis on our hands. How can he grow a whole shoe size in one month?
He clearly doesn’t understand the vital role that coffee plays in Mummy’s life or he wouldn’t have timed this before my first cup. If he’d told me yesterday I could have gotten new shoes but no, it had to be at 7:58 and is that the bus I hear driving up??? Had the day finally arrived when hubby would get home, ask where Niels was and I’d have to admit I’d thrown him down the rubbish shute?
I grabbed one of Niels feet and shoved it into a gym shoe without a sock on.
“Does that fit better now?”
“Right. Problem solved. Get on the bus.”

Crisis averted. Time for that coffee.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Night Safari - Hot Stuff!

As I think I've mentioned before, we anticipate that we will be leaving Singapore fairly soon. In the mean time we've decided to go back to all of our favourite places at least one more time. Shortly after we arrived over two years ago we took the kids to the Night Safari, which is basically a night-time zoo experience with a twist. Many animals are much more active at night than during the day so you see a different side to nature: the wolves are howling, the lions slouching around, the hyenas scitter under the trees with their crazy grins showing glemaing white teeth in the dim light. The safari is conducted in open sided electric trams which take you silently through what feels and sounds like dense jungle. A very cool part of this expereince is that many animals - thankfully only the herbivores! - are let loose to roam freely and graze on the grass and fodder provided alongside the road, so antelope, deer, tapirs, wild pigs, and all sorts of other creatures cross the road and snuffle around within a couple of metres with no fence between you and them.

There are also a couple of shows provided on the evening, and the attached video clip is of the fire breathers who kept us riveted as we ate dinner outside. I've never seen someone able to breath fire for so long - what happens if he gets the hiccups??

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Beast of Burden

What can I say. The poor guy has only been home about 30 seconds - note he still has on his shoes and his sunglasses - and he has to give horsey rides to the kids. Can you hear his knees crunching painfully on the marble floor??
Here's an idea, tonight when he comes home I'll see if he'll give me a horsey ride!
Now where's my riding crop...

Monday, September 15, 2008

And You Thought Your Parents Were Pushy???

...in that case you didn't read the article by Jamie Ee Wen Wei headed A match made in Hong Lim Park? in the Sept 7 Sunday Times.

Apparently Prime Minister Lee Hseing Loong announced during his National Day Rally speech on Aug 17 that parents should get more involved in finding suitable mates for their children. Jackiey Kew (33) and Lydia Gan (34) were not slow on the uptake and promptly launched a dating service called Clique Wise to help out mums and dads keen to matchmake their still-single adult children. About 50 parents were expected to turn up to their first parental-matchmaking session, during which they exchanged photos and biodata about their children.

Ms Gan (who is still single) said: "True, there will be people who will be scared that their parents will pick the wrong person for them. But parents will want the best for their kids".

Mr Kwek, (who is married) agrees that "there may be some sceptism but insists the event is not about arranged marriages. He hopes the parents, too, will not rush things. "We'll tell them it does not mean that after their children come for the event, they'll get married the next day."

Glad to hear it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting It Together

I’ve had such an awesome day getting totally organised. This may not sound like a lot of fun to many but I HATE clutter, although my nearest and dearest will, I’m sure, be quick to point out that this doesn’t mean the place won’t descend into a state of near chaos before I’m moved to tidy up. However as we’ll be leaving Singapore in the not-too-distant future I’m going through the cupboards and tidying up/chucking away/re-homing stuff we don’t need.

A couple of days ago I found the PERFECT shop for anyone like me. Howards Storage World was mentioned in a magazine I read recently as having ideal storage ideas for hand bags. Well that got my bells ringing so off I trotted to Harbourfront, a hitherto unexplored shopping mall on the southern coast, near the Sentosa Gateway. This place has storage ideas for all those little bits and pieces we accumulate and desperately need but just can’t keep tidy. Think shoes, handbags, makeup, out of season clothes, books…and don’t even start me on the kitchen ware section.

Now I have a collection of handbags which, while modest in size to my way of thinking, threatens nevertheless to take over the entire wardrobe. The solution? This handy plastic double sided hanger which stores 14 handbags. And yes, I only needed one. The hanging shoe organisers next to it in the photo is actually from Ikea, although Howards sells a similar line.

On to the make up, which used to be stored in a wooden tray (also from Ikea) which was probably originally intended for cutlery. Now it’s all nestled comfortably in a compact acrylic tray, easy to find and on-hand when I need it.
By now you're all probably shaking your heads wondering how anal someone can be and still lead a normal life but hey, it works for me!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Din Tai Fung, For A Dimple In Your Dumpling

For ages I've been meaning to write about one of my all-time favourite eating places, Din Tai Fung. This is a chain of Chinese dumpling restaurants which started in Mainland China, spread to Taiwan, and is now in Japan, the US, Singapore,Indonesia, Australia, and Korea. It's probably going to be coming to where you live soon if you're not in one of those. (If you're really intrested they have a long, long story about it all on their website ).

Although famous for their dumplings they also serve a delicious array of sieuw mai (steam minced pork in pastry topped with a prawn), fantastic fried rice, noodles, and other traditional Chinese dishes. Everything has been simplified to a certain degree and because it's steamed, it's lean and healthy. The food is prepared by an army of white clothed, face-mask wearing cooks in two kitchens with glass walls and half the fun is watching the incredible speed and precision with which they make the food.

The chain leapt to world prominence in 1993 when The New York Times voted it one of the top 10 restaruants in the world. Every item on the menu is hand mande. The signature dish is Xiao Long Bao which are small balls of minced spiced pork nestled inside a soft pastry case topped with no less than 18 pleats. The little dumpling is infused with a hot broth then steamed until piping hot and served to you, as are all their steamed dishes, in the traditional bamboo basket. Watch out for the hot broth inside! Once they've cooled down a little you can sink your teeth into this fabulous little parcel of pleasure and believe me, you'll be a convert. This is the standard to which all other dim sum must now aspire.

If I'm in town with Carl I occasionally take him to the outlet at Paragon because he loves the place. He stuffs himself silly on Xiao Long Bao and their special rice which is mixed with egg and chives and topped wth steamed, peeled prawns. Despite its reputation the place is not at all pretentious: the average time for a meal is 40 minutes, they don't take bookings, and the service is rapid but friendly.
Once you've made your selection from the menu, which helpfully includes photos of all the dishes, you use the pen and form provided to tick which dishes you want to have. Your order is whisked away, entered into a computer, then returned to you and as each dish arrives - usually about 6-7 minutes apart - the serving staff cross them off the list. Green tea is served throughout the meal and when you are finished you simply take your list up to the cashier and pay. Couldn't be easier, or tastier!
Din Tai Fung has five outlets in Singapore so get to one soon and try it out, you won't regret it.
And yes, next time I'm there I will take a photo of the 18-pleat dumplings just to prove that they really do exist and are as perfect as I say!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Vending Machine Fever

Nowhere else in the world have I ever seen toy vending machines like I have in Singapore. Perhaps there are plenty of places that have these things and I’ve never noticed, but with two young kids we rarely fail to see the rows and rows of coin operated machines which spew forth toys inside plastic balls. For between $1 and $6 you can turn the handle and collect a surprise toy. Invariably the boys really want to have just one of the range of six or so inside each machine, and as Murphy’s Law applies as much on the equator as anywhere else, you can pretty much guarantee that the one they get is NOT that one.
Happily my lot aren’t too fussy. Movie theatres in particularly seem to specialise in these, and at Cathay Cineleisure, which is where we go for most of our kids movies, there are literally hundreds of these things. It’s a good way to fill in 15 minutes if you‘re early for a film because the kids can easily spend that much time peering at the pictures on the outside before making their final selection. Oddly there is also a huge stack of them outside Toys R Us in Paragon. Because obviously after ploughing their way through 10,000 different toys in the store what parents really want when they stagger out past the till with their wallets almost empty is to pour all their remaining change into one of these machines to buy....more toys!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Kinokinuya – Bookstore in the Twilight Zone

One of life’s truly wonderful pleasures is browsing in a bookstore. I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t enjoy losing themselves among shelves of books and even if you don’t end up buying anything, you never leave without the satisfyingly full feeling of having sated your appetite. It’s like visiting a sweet store where you’re allowed to taste all the merchandise, then leave without actually buying anything and still have the storekeeper smile and say “thanks for dropping by!”
Without the calories.
I have two favourite bookshops in Singapore, although I’m the first to admit that I haven’t looked that extensively since I just love these two so much and they are nearby on Orchard Road. The first of course is Borders, which I was excited to find on our first house-hunting mission here. You may think I’m easily pleased (and what’s wrong with that?!) but remember, I lived in a small Dutch village for 12 years before arriving here so any building filled with a million books all written in English is going to get my engine revving. Yes, I know it’s kind of a generic train station for popular books but hey, the kids section is huge, the magazine section is filled with journals I’ve never seen before, and the local section is well stocked with everything from historical tomes to the latest Sing-fiction. Actually it was while trying to locate a newly published book of short stories by local authors that I discovered a typically Singaporean quirk: the plastic wrapped book. We’ve all seen the wrapped up issues of Playboy etc in gas stations, but half the books deemed indecent in the sealed section in Singapore are considered mainstream in any Western country. Nothing makes you feel quite so much like a pervert as standing in line at Borders, idling staring into space, then realising everybody else is staring at you because all the books you’re buying are sealed in plastic! I can just hear them thinking “Kinky ang moh lady, no can read books in plastic, so rude lah”.
My ultimate favourite shop is Kinokuniya (try saying that quickly three times), located on the fourth floor of Takishimaya (there’s another one!) shopping centre. It’s unbelievably well-stocked with towering shelves of every kind of book you can think of. The manga section is incredible; hordes of pubescent kids poring over the latest issues of these graphic novels prove there’s a huge market for it. The kids section is even better than Borders in my opinion, with a much more extensive young readers reference section. I was looking for some new bedtime books to read the kids: they wanted the novels for the movies Walle and Star Wars – the Clone Wars. I also found some classics they will love: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (good old CS Lewis!), The Railway Children by E Nesbit and finally The Tale of Troy by Roger L Green which is bound to be a hit with Niels.

They also have the fantastic Book Web: an internet system that allows you to search for any book in their stores by title, author, or ISBN (either from your home pc or in the shop), locate it on the shelves and print out a map to find it if necessary.

The only slightly annoying thing about Kinokuniya is that I am constantly getting lost in there. It’s like a Tardis in that when you walk in you think you can see most of the shop and find your way out again but the longer you spend in there the bigger it gets and the more twists and turns the aisles take. This time I ended up getting lost in the maps corner, got confused in the Globes Display and then got stuck in a reference section on how to improve your English. They certainly take that subject seriously in Singapore where Singlish reigns and the government encourages people to improve their skills with books with titles such as English As It Is Broke. Floundering through the French and German books I had a fraught sensation of déjà vu before bursting out, gasping for breath into the realm of Culinary Pleasures. Heart beat returning to normal I picked up a copy of 1421 – The Year China Discovered The World before finally spotting a cashier. With my discount card wilting in my sweaty palm I paid for what by now had gown to a huge pile of books then made three circuits of the stationary annex before centrifugal force propelled me out an exit. Freedom!
Still, I know I’ll be back soon because there are few places I’d rather be lost than in Kinokuniya. And besides, by now the security guy is used to me and seems to give me a rather sympathetic smile as he waves goodbye. Or maybe it's the sealed books poking out of the carrier bag he's leering at...

Monday, September 01, 2008

Singapore Air Force Open Day

Yesterday the Singapore Air Force held it's annual open day, an event which was celebrated with more than the usual glee as it is the institutions 40th anniversary.
There's nothing like a collection of high powered weaponry to kick off your birthday celebrations so the event was, as Niels declared, "AWESOME!!!!!".

Having visted more than my fair share of military museums and displays since we've lived here - the State loves to promote its mighty defences and show the locals exactly what they're spending their billioins on - I bowed out of this one and allowed hubby to take the kids along. Ready for a big day, they set off early because if there's one thing you learn from living on a small island with 4.6 million other people, it's that getting to things early means you avoid most of the crushing crowds that turn up later on. Singaporeans are not keen on getting out of bed early on Sundays, probably because they work so damn hard for the rest of the week plus because the shops don't open until 10:30am every day.

So what was the boys favourite part? Well, after hearing all about how amazing it was, I'd say it would be a close tie between sitting in the cockpit of an F16 jet fighter, pulling the trigger on a HUGE machine gun mounted on an Apache attack helicopter (just look at Niels face in the photo on the left!), or playing with the flight simulators - surely the world's most expensive video games.
As if that wasn't enough they got to crawl inside helicopters and sit in the cockpit of a training plane. Plus of course there was hardware parked or flying everywhere, from huge transport planes to Chinook helicopters thump-thump-thump-thumping overhead.
Hubby's favourite part was probably either successfully navigating through the show without losing either child, or managing to extract them both from the flight simulators without either throwing a major hissy fit and announcing they would rather actually live there than return home.

Mind you, even Daddy couldn't resist the toy stand and Niels came back with a collection of cardboard model jet fighters to assemble, while Carl had chosen a transporter plane. Finally, hot, sweaty, and running dangerously low on peanut butter sandwiches, the three intrepid adverturors returned home.

The kids were given enough tattoos of planes to keep their skin decorated for a month, plus post-it note style pads emblazoned with the logo of the Singapore Air Force: Generate and Sustain. Hang on, I thought their job was to hunt things down and blow shit up?? That logo sounds more appropriate for a vegetable farm.