Sunday, December 27, 2009

Verner Panton

(The photo taken from Excite Ism)

I didn't know who Verner Panton was. But this Danish interior designer is apparently one of the must-know persons in the history of design, and the picture above (used in the flyer for the exhibition held at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery until today) is intriguing enough for me to decide to visit the Gallery just one hour before the closing time.

Skipping the first section on the biography of Verner Panton and his early works on display (which I think is a bit boring way of introducing the whole exhibition), the corn chairs and other geometrically-shaped chairs catch my eyes:
(The photo taken from Excite Ism)

Using the inverted circular cone as a chair is the idea Panton came up with back in 1958. It is actually a functional idea. A circular cone has a flat surface that can be used as a seat and the cone part can be used as a support for the chair.

This obsession with a chair that doesn't have a standard form culminates into the Panton Chair (the photo to the right, taken from Wikipedia):

This chair is familiar to me because I often have lunch by sitting on this chair at the cafe in my Stockholm workplace. The exhibition tells visitors that Panton invented the concept in 1965. Technology at that time did not allow the concept to materialize in the commercially viable form. Only in the early 1990s, plastic materials became sturdy enough to realize this chair shape durable for a long time. Usually, people whose idea is too advanced are only cherished in history. In the case of Panton, we can appreciate his idea in real time, for example, at the cafe in my workplace.

What really blows my mind, however, is his talent in space design. The exhibition replicates two installations he produced back in 1970. The first is Phantasy Landscape, shown in the picture at the top of this blog entry which does not really tell what this is about. It's a cave-like structure made of foam rubber. Visitors can sit down, lie down, and even sleep. What strikes me is that this space makes people look happy. When I enter into this cave, quite a few people are sitting, chatting, and sleeping. The crowd usually looks a bit annoying and can be intimidating. Here in this cave these people look beautiful. This is an installation that comes to fruition when it interacts with people, a very popular idea for today's art installation. But Panton did this almost 40 years ago.

The second mind-blower is 3-D Carpet "Wave". A huge red carpet that has wave-like humps, which can be used as a chair, a sofa, or a pillow. Visitors sit down and lie down on their back on this carpet to watch a film on Verner Panton on the wall screen. The view of this installation is again a very pleasant experience. People apparently enjoy it. You feel it by looking at their faces. And I myself enjoy chilling on a wave-hump.

Some nightclubs and bars should adopt these two spaces designed by Panton. Actually, some of the other spaces produced by Panton appear to have influenced the design of some nightclubs and bars today. The decor of Cocoon in Frankfurt and Zouk in Singapore, I believe, has some traces of his design, if not intentional.

On the way home, I read a giveaway leaflet for this exhibition. I learn the following behind-the-curtain episode. Directed by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the exhibition has been on the world tour since 2000. However, the Tokyo version is curated quite differently from the earlier exhibitions in other countries. While Panton's works were on display chronologically and often in the same room in those earlier exhibitions, Ichiro Katami and Uichi Yamamoto, the directors for the Tokyo exhibition, thought such a way of exhibition wouldn't be effective enough to deliver Panton's pursuit of fantasy space to visitors. Consequently, at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, they split the exhibition space into several separated booths each of which represents different philosophies Panton embodied into his works. Plus, the 3-D Carpet replica was made specially for this Tokyo exhibition. In other words, people in other countries who visited this exhibition were unable to experience that happy atmosphere.

Another reason to believe that Tokyo is the world's most interesting city.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Changi Airport

Singapore's Changi Airport deserves a few praises.

1. Wireless broadband internet is available for free of charge. (All the airports in the world should follow suit). To get a logging-in detail, go to the information desk with your passport.

2. Unlike other airports, departing passengers in Terminal 3 first go through the passport control and, after walking a lot to the boarding gate, go through the security checkpoint located in front of a group of boarding gates. It is a clever idea to reduce the notorious congestion at the security checkpoint all the other major airports suffer from.

3. After going through the passport control in Terminal 3, there is a food court for you to taste the last Singaporean cuisine (located in Transit Mall Level 3). Prima Taste Kitchen serves a wide variety of Singaporean cuisine with its famous (a bit pricey though) ready-to-cook sauce kit for each dish on the shelf for your souvenir. You won't end up leaving Singapore with the last meal being a sandwich.

4. The interior design is quite pleasant:

Terminal 3 checking-in area (above); A waiting lounge for boarding gates (right)

Hotel Review: HangOut@Mt.Emily

During my stay in Singapore from 18th to 24th December 2009, Room 408 at HangOut@Mt.Emily is where I sleep. The room rate for a double room is 98.85 Singaporean dollars (about 50 euro) per night.

The Good:
Wireless broadband connection for free.

Breakfast is included in the room charge.

Very friendly staff.

Stylish minimalist decor.

Washing machines and dryers available on the second floor. 5 Singaporean dollars for a wash and another 5 Singaporean dollars for a dry. You can buy a packet of detergent for 6 Singaporean dollars at the reception. This helps me a lot as I lost my luggage on the way to Singapore, and my clothes need to be washed with cold water and should not be tumble-dried (ie. washing on my own allows me to choose the appropriate way of washing them).

The Bad:
You need to switch on the boiler in the bedroom and wait for 15 minutes to take a hot shower.

No hand towel is provided. (Bath towels and floor towels only.)

Housekeepers rarely change your towels for environmental reasons. Which in itself is fine, but you cannot expect which towel will be replaced tomorrow.

The naming convention at this hotel is a bit confusing. For example, the reception is called "Help Out". "Veg Out" is a second-floor communal space with a TV set, a pool table, vending machines for snacks and soft drinks, complimentary coffee and tea, a small library, and internet terminals. The seventh floor is called "Look Out", which is a roof-top garden.

I cannot turn off the noisy air-conditioner in my bedroom (I have to wear earplugs to sleep).

Every time I put the room key card into the slot for room electricity, the room temperature setting for the air-conditioner is reset to 22 degrees Celsius (which is too cold for me).

Breakfast ends in 9:30 am. (Cheap places to eat are located within a 5 minutes walk, though.)

The hotel location is slightly inconvenient. It's located at the top of a hill. You have to climb the stairs either from Mount Emily Road or from Wilkie Road. (The signage is clear enough, though.) The nearest metro station is Little India, 7 minute walk away. Taxi drivers do not know where this hotel is.

The safety box available at the reception (or Help Out) is very small (although in Singapore you don't really need to worry about theft in the hotel room; plus, access to each floor requires a guest room key).

The Ugly:
Nothing in particular.

As a budget hotel for back-packer types, you cannot expect more than this hotel. If you're used to more luxurious hotels, however, this hotel is not your option.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A strange view at a supermarket in Singapore

I didn't know there exists chicken that's black.

Fashion for youngsters in Singapore

To my surprise, Singaporean girls do not follow one particular trend in fashion. Each of them wears whatever they want to wear, it seems. For one thing, the tropical climate that ensures temperature of at least 20 degrees Celsius throughout the year constrains the variety of wearable clothes. For another, a bit like London, Singapore is a multi-cultural society that makes it difficult for one particular style to be popular for everyone.

After visiting several shopping malls on and off Orchard Street, the most fashion-conscious girls appear to flock Far East Plaza. A variety of numerous budget boutiques each of which presents different styles are housed in a rather outdated decor of the shopping mall. Inside the mall and on the way to Far East Plaza on Scotts Road from the crossing with Orchard Road, you see distinctive-looking (by Singaporean standards) teenagers one of whom I take picture of (see above).

The Heeren shopping mall on Orchard Road offers more of a cheap imitation of Tokyo's latest fashion. Far East Plaza seems to me more interesting.

An example of multi-cultural Singapore

Far East Plaza, the shopping mall popular for fashion-conscious teens, has a restaurant called Sakura Cuisine that serves halal Thai Chinese foods. (Sakura is a Japanese word for cherry blossom.) I see a queue of head-scarfed girls in front of the restaurant.

Foods in Singapore

The biggest attraction of Singapore is a wide variety of foods. Chinese and Indian cuisines meet each other with local Malay twists. Various local Chinese cuisines (including Sichuan hotpot to mutton soup from northen China) are also available. Plus, the influx of foreigners from various countries expands the range of options available from proper Western cuisine to Burmese (see this post). Stylish cafe chains from other countries in East Asia open their branch in Singapore: Trung Nguyen Coffee from Vietnam serving Vietnamese coffee; Emperor Love from Taiwan serving green tea.

The restaurant scene appears to be changing quite quickly. If you wonder which restaurant to go, check out Hungrygowhere to read reviews by gourmet Singaporeans. Below are Singaporean meals that I managed to try during my stay. There are, however, much more in Singapore. (I couldn't try chili crab, for example.)

Chicken Rice: Slowly boiled chicken and rice cooked in the resulting chicken broth. Yummy.

Laksa: A spicy noodle soup. Both Time Out and Wallpaper* city guides for Singapore praise 328 Katong Laksa as the best restaurant for laksa, but it's not really worth traveling all the way to East Coast Road, half an hour bus ride from the city center. If you still want to try this place, beware that its address is no longer 328 East Coast Road. It's 216 East Coast Road.

Kway Teow: Stir-fried noodle in Malay style.

Black carrot cake: Stir-fried daikon (Japanese radish) with soy-sauce. There is a white version that's without soy-sauce.

Fish head curry: See this post.

I also had Kueh Pie Tee, Otah, and Popiah, all of which are more of snack foods.

I'm quite impressed by the depth of Singaporean cuisine.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Night Safari

One of the famous tourist attractions in Singapore is Night Safari. Open only in the evening (7:30 pm to midnight), this night-time zoo without any cage lets visitors watch nocturnal animals around the world as if they were living wild.

With an experience of watching wild animals in Botswana two years ago, however, Night Safari is disappointing to me. The animal show is a bit of lame; waiting for more than half an hour isn't really worthwhile. Visitors can explore the zoo by riding on a tram with a guide talking non-stop about animals in sight on either side of the tram line. My complaint is that the tram is too noisy to feel the atmosphere of tropical rainforest. The tram does not stop at each view of animals, making it hard to take photo; as the flash is prohibited, you need to stand still for a while to take picture so the camera lens collect sufficient amount of light.

Having said that, Singapore's Night Safari is a well-designed zoo worth visiting if you know what to expect (and if you haven't seen wild animals in Africa). Don't waste time by watching the animal show. Don't take the tram. Walk on your own. And wish yourself luck so you will encounter animals by chance.

Although there are places to eat inside Night Safari, the best way is to have early dinner in the city center and head for the Safari by taxi (about 20 Singaporean dollars one way) on weekdays, when there are less visitors.

Expo MRT Station

Designed by Foster and Partners.

Expo station is the first stop on the MRT line (Singapore's metro) from Changi Airport. To appreciate the architecture, you do need to get off the train. With your heavy suitcase, it's a bit burdensome. On the other hand, traveling all the way from the city center (about 30 minutes) to see this Sir Norman Foster's creation may not be worthwhile unless you are a Foster fan.

Assyafaah Mosque

(Clockwise from top left: the front facade; the prayer room; the view from the entrance hall towards the prayer room with a praying boy standing)

Fourteen percent of Singaporeans are Muslim Malays. As a result, you frequently encounter mosques throughout the city (often next to Hindu and/or Buddhist temples). Assyfaah Mosque (pictured above) is probably the most innovative among those.

The mosque is located in the northern part of Singapore, off the beaten track for tourists. Take the MRT North South Line (the red route on the Singaporean metro map) and get off at Sembawang station. Walk a bit to the east from the station and turn left to go up along Canberra Road. After a five minute walk, the Road starts curving towards right. The back facade of the mosque will then appear on your left. (As of December 2009, Google Map's location for the mosque is 250 meters off, by the way.)

The arabesque front facade may attract the most attention, but personally, the beauty of this mosque lies in the prayer hall. After taking off your shoes and walking through a rather low-ceiling entrance hall, a vertically spacious room appears with an inward-sloping pitch-white wall inscribed with Arabic letters as if they were part of contemporary minimalist furniture design. The space creates a tranquil atmosphere, letting visitors remember that Islam is a tolerant religion. As a non-Muslim, I still feel comfortable to stay inside the mosque for a while.

Although in front of the building rises a stand-alone brown spire with the crescent moon and star symbol, there is neither a minaret in the traditional form nor a dome. People in Switzerland may be happy with this mosque.

The mosque is designed by Forum Architects from Singapore. Who talks about lack of creativity among Singaporeans?

Fish head curry at Gayatri Restaurant

To taste fish head curry, a Singapore specialty (pictured above; the pineapple slice must have been removed to show the fish eye, though), I visit the Gayatri Restaurant, following a gourmet friend's advice, during the lunch time.

Unlike other Singaporean foods, a fish head curry is not a cheap food. The menu says it costs at least 20 Singaporean dollars (still only 10 euro, though). For Mondays and Wednesdays, however, the Gayatri Restaurant serves it for 15 dollars. And it's a big portion because the fish head is quite big. I realize it's a dish for at least 2 persons. But it is possible to finish by yourself because you cannot stop eating, thanks to the Asian addictive taste of umami. The fish head curry pot is served with a large banana leaf used as a plate.

Fish head curry is a great encounter of Indian and Chinese cuisine styles. A profound mixture of Indian curry spice meets with Chinese fish soup broth. As a result, the curry soup is less thick than the usual Indian curry while it's thicker than the usual Chinese soup. It leads you to a new world of taste. The tomato-based curry includes not only a giant fish head but also pineapple slices and okuras. I didn't know okura could be this tasty. The fish head is surprisingly meaty: lots to eat in the forehead and cheeks (and don't forget there is the other side of the fish head). The fatty texture behind the eye balls adds an extra richness to the whole culinary experience. I eat it with a naan bread, but I regret it because eating with rice is a better way to savour the curry soup.

When I ordered the curry, I asked the waitress to bring a cup of masala tea after the meal. She seems to forget it. And the restaurant gets quite busy. But don't worry. Each table in the Gayatri Restaurant is equipped with this:

When you press the appropriate button, someone immediately comes to your table.

The Gayatri Restaurant's interior

Race Course Road, a street on the edge of the Little India district that the Gayatri restaurant faces, has other Indian restaurants serving fish head curry such as Muthu's Curry (the restaurant which invented fish head curry, according to Time Out City Guide Singapore) and Banana Leaf Apolo, which appears to set the trend of serving foods on banana leaves in these restaurants. For repeated visitors to Singapore, it would be fun to try these other restaurants as well to see which one serves the best fish head curry in your opinion.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mango sago with pomelo at Ah Chew Desserts

After the Peranakan dinner, my friends take me to Ah Chew Desserts, a traditional Chinese dessert shop. It's packed with youngsters. Mango sago with pomelo is beautiful. Pomelo, a grapefruit-like fruit that seems to be widely available in Singapore, tastes a bit insipid on its own. But with the strong flavor of mango, the grape-fruit texture of pomelo becomes an excellent twist to the dessert.

According to my friends, this kind of traditional Chinese desserts is no longer cooked at home. Today's youngsters whose mother doesn't know how to make these desserts flock this place probably because it's something new to them.

Peranakan cuisine at True Blue

I didn't know what Peranakan meant before I came to Singapore. The term refers to those Chinese people who migrated to the Malay Peninsula under the Dutch and then British rules. They developed their own culture half way between Chinese and Malay. Houses on Koon Seng Road are one example. And we are talking about East Asians, which means the unique culture, of course, includes its unique (and delicious, of course) cuisine.

True Blue Cuisine, recently relocated to 47/49 Armenian Street in the city center, offers authentic, if a bit pricey by Singaporean standards (which means not pricey at all, if not budget, by European standards), Peranakan cuisine. A friend of mine, who usually doesn't eat spicy food (thank you for having dinner with me at this restaurant, Joel), enjoys it. What blows my mind (or my taste bud) is a dish called ayam buah keluak. It's chicken stew with black nuts (seeds of a tree known as Pangium edule). The key is this black nut which is as big as a chicken egg. The waiter teaches us how to savor these black nuts. Open it, scoop the paste-textured black content inside, and eat it with steamed rice. When I start eating it this way, I cannot stop. The umami taste of black nuts just makes me keep wanting to eat rice. That's the kind of dining experience I miss a lot in Sweden.

All the other dishes are also excellent. There is a hint of Chinese-ness both in cuisine and in decor (see the above picture), but it's a whole new experience. Imagine what if China is located in a tropical area. A must-go if you are in Singapore.

Arab Quarter


It is rather surprising to learn that the area known as the Arab Quarter has Singapore's most bohemian street, Haji Lane. Lined up along this small alleyway are colorfully painted (often with graffiti) old houses converted into boutiques and cafes (photos 01-04 and 10). My favorite is Going Om (63 Haji Lane), a bohemian cafe playing cosy music with felt carpets and low tables to sit down by taking off shoes. The entrance is decorated with potted plants to shield the cafe away from the outside world (photo 09). The atmosphere is perfect. Only if they served proper mint tea.

Arab Street (photo 05), one block northeast from Haji Lane, is halfway between bohemianism and more traditional Islam with beautiful displays in a series of silk dress shops (photo 06) along this street, which also sees halal Swedish cafe named Fika, which does not appear to serve kanelbulle (Sweden's signature cafe bun).

London has several Muslim immigrant quarters, but as far as I remember, none of them have any contemporary twists like these in Singapore's Arab Quarter. Where does the difference come from?

Centered in the Arab Quarter is the Sultan Mosque (photo 07) whose illuminated view at night is beautiful:

Bussorah Street, the street leading to the Sultan Mosque, is a bit touristy. Sleepy's Sam, an apparently popular budget backpacker hotel, is located here. Its presence is noticeable because lazy-looking Westerners, chatting in front of the hotel, are so out of place.

Burmese foods

Pictured above is pickled tea leaves rice with fried chicken which I have for lunch at Inle Myanmar Restaurant on the basement of Peninsula Plaza in Singapore. The friend chicken is nothing special, but my mind is totally blown by the rice mixed with pickled tea leaves, fried peas, peanuts, toasted sesame, sliced fresh garlic, shredded fresh tomatoes, chili, dried shrimps, vegetable oil, and lime juice.

It's just delicious.

Ingredients are not particularly special. Chinese, Thai, and Indian influences can be traced. But when they come together, the taste becomes something that I haven't experienced before.

For dessert, I pick hsanwin makin (semolina cake). I didn't expect much because sweets from developing countries are usually just sweet and unsophisticated. I was wrong. This cake is not too sweet. The texture is not too hard, not too soft, just right for enhancing the taste of the cake. I'm pleasantly surprised.

I won't have a chance to visit Myanmar for the foreseeable future. That's why I tried this Burmese restaurant in Singapore, to expand the range of cuisine I've been exposed to. And I made the right decision. Special thanks to Linus, who told me about how good Burmese foods are.

The Japanese occupation of Singapore

(From top left clockwise: A poster by Asahi Shinbun, Japan's major newspaper, to celebrate the occupation of Singapore; A poster with a warning against self-congratulation after the victory; A signboard for a food distribution point.

My Singaporean friends appear to agree that the National Museum of Singapore is the best place to learn the history of this city state. At the entrance to the history gallery, I'm given what they call "companion" with a headphone. This gadget with a screen plays a role of explaining the theme of each exhibition section and historical items on display. Type the number written on the floor or next to the item on display, and the companion starts the explanation either in audio or on screen. An innovative way of museum exhibition.

One interesting fact to learn is that in the early 20th century, when Singapore was thriving as a trade port and a financial center under the British rule, the authority encouraged local people to attend school in order to overcome the shortage of skilled labor forces necessary for the economic prosperity of Singapore.

My main interest in the Singaporean history lies in the Japanese occupation period (1942-1945), something Japanese people never learn at school. After defeating the British navy on 15 February 1942, the Japanese occupation authority summoned residents in Singapore, family by family. Women and children were immediately let go home. Malay and Indian men were also let go home. Chinese men, if local police collaborators told the authority that they had a record of anti-Japanese behavior, were executed. (Japan was at war with mainland China at that time.) No one knows how many Chinese people were killed by the Japanese occupation forces.

Economically, the Japanese occupation of Singapore was a disaster. Food shortage forced the authority to ration foods to local residents. There was an attempt to transfer Singaporean men to farms in Malay Peninsula to increase food production, which was a complete failure.

Those killed during the occupation period were commemorated by the Civilian War Memorial, looking like giant white chopsticks sticking upright to the sky:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Little India on a Sunday evening

Attracting a huge number of male migrant workers from South Asia, Little India on a Sunday evening exudes kind of a festive atmosphere. My journey through the area starts at C.M.K. 2001 Restaurant, opposite to the Mustafa Centre (more on this Singaporean institution later). Teh Halia (milk tea with ginger) revives me.

Walking down one block on Kapor Road to the south, I spot a mobile phone shop run by Chinese Singaporeans. As I need to buy a prepaid SIM card, I just pop in to get one by presenting my passport and paying 15 Singaporean dollars with 3 dollar worth extra talking time allowance. Since there is a promotional campaign held at this store, a further 6 dollar worth credit is added. Calling rates are very cheap (8 cents per minute for a call, 5 cents per text). I'm amazed how visitor-friendly Singaporean mobile phones are.

Further down on Kabor Road, I notice a very narrow alleyway on my left. Just out of curiosity, I venture into this alleyway only to find that this is a (literally) red-light district. South Asian guys flock the entrance of a red-lighted hair-salon-looking place in which a few women are sitting on chairs. There are also several groups of South Asian guys who appear to play gambling.

At the end of the alley, turn right and then turn right again to walk into Rowell Road. The right side of this road is dotted with brothels. South Asian men are gazing through the bar fence into scanty-clad women.

Back on Kabor Road, I walk further down to the south. The road has a huge number of South Asian men (not a single woman in sight), some chatting to each other, some just standing alone. New high-rise residential buildings on the left have grocery shops and electronic product shops on the ground floor. On a parking lot pop up some stalls and booths for viewing cricket on TV.

At the end of Kabor Road, I turn right. Two-story shop houses in this part of Little India look cute in yellow.

I go across Serangoon Road, Little India's main street, to Kerbau Road. After one block, the road is pedestrianized and absolutely packed with South Asian men (not a single woman in sight). I notice many men hold a cup of yellow hot liquid here. Corn potage soup? I manage to find out a shop selling this yellow stuff. There is a long queue in front. I ask one guy drinking it. He tells me it's masala tea and I have to pay in advance and then join the queue to get a cup of mine. I follow what he told me and enjoy the spicy taste of malasa tea along with many South Asian guys.

By the time I go back to Mustafa Centre where I meet my friends, it gets dark, but the crowd does not seem to go away anytime soon. I briefly get into Mustafa Centre. It sells everything from foods and clothes to bags, drugs, jewel, gold bars, and even India visas for 24 hours every day. On the last day of my stay in Singapore, I come here again to buy a cabin-sized suitcase for only 19 Singaporean dollars because my lost luggage never comes back to me before leaving Singapore,

After a quick supper, my friends take me back to the red light Rowell Road for a bohemian bar (Food#03 at 109 Rowell Road). They serve me with a glass of masala tequila. I learn that this bar used to be a brothel. But the house owner one day gets arty, and converts the brothel next door into an art gallery and this one into a bar. South Asian men flock the entrance of the art gallery, just like they do in front of a brothel, being perplexed with what the hell the place is all about.

On the way back to the hotel, I walk down Serangoon Road with an endless series of colorfully painted old shop houses illuminated.