12 Hours in Kampong Glam

Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my piece on the city’s vibrant Arab Quarter.

If the Raffles Landing Site can be considered the birthplace of modern Singapore, then the Kampong Glam district was its cradle. Originally a village (a kampong in Malay) used by sea gypsies that was surrounded by gelam trees, the land vaulted into the history books when it was given to the last sultan of Johor in 1824 as part of the treaty that ceded Singapore to the British. By the 1920s, what had once been designated a Muslim enclave had picked up a notorious reputation as a red-light district that lasted until the 1970s, when the Bugis area was completely refurbished. Today, Kampong Glam is a blend of vibrant malls and cultural touchstones, a bastion of what defined Singapore’s multicultural capitalism two centuries ago and what defines it today.

9am – 10am 

This part of town is slow to wake, with many establishments opening their doors around noon, but that doesn’t mean a delicious breakfast can’t be found. Earlybird is a cozy space with excellent coffee. Located on the corner of Victoria Street and Jalan Pinang, a stone’s throw from both the Sultan Mosque and the enormous mural Girl with Lion Cub by Ernest Zacharevic, it makes for an ideal starting point for the day.

10am – 12pm 

The crown jewel of Kampong Glam, historically and physically, the Sultan Mosque cannot be missed. A pillar for the local Muslim community, the original mosque was born out of the 1824 accord, but within a few decades, it had fallen into disrepair and couldn’t fulfill the needs of the Islamic community, which had grown significantly. Construction of the new mosque began in 1924 but slowed and stalled in the years of global recession that followed. The funds to finish the building came from the generosity of local Muslims, with those who couldn’t afford to contribute money donating glass bottles instead. These bottles now make up the rings that encircle the base of each of the impressive gold ogee domes. Note that the mosque is closed to visitors on Friday mornings.

12pm – 2pm 

Since the mosque is surrounded by a number of delicious Malay and Mediterranean restaurants, an indulgent lunch is in order. As expected in an area nicknamed the Arab Quarter, many establishments are halal, which means they don’t serve pork or alcohol. Eateries on North Bridge Road like Warong Nasi Pariaman, Sabar Menanti II and Pondok Jawa Timur all give you a delicious taste of regional cuisine. On the Mediterranean side of things, my personal favorites for creamy hummus and delicious kebabs are IstanBlue on Baghdad Street and Alaturka on Bussorah Street. For a treat, the cupcakes and doughnuts from Fluff Bakery on Jalan Pisang are pretty hard to beat. As is the gelato from aROMA on Arab Street.

2pm – 4pm 

One of the most unique parts of visiting Kampong Glam is the opportunity to indulge in some truly old-world shopping experiences. The streets of historic shophouses are the perfect place to find Turkish mosaic glass lamps, luxurious carpets and bespoke craft pieces for the home. Sifr Aromatics is legendary and for good reason. If you’re tired of the too sugary/citrusy perfumes found on department store shelves, this should be top of your list. A stroll down Arab Street will lead you past rolls upon rolls of fabric in all colors and textures. Don’t worry if you’re like me and can’t even thread a needle. The majority of these shops have in-house seamstresses who you can tap to make you a custom piece of clothing.

Blue Jazz Cafe

4pm – 6pm 

Time to get out of the heat. Located in the former palace of the Johor Sultan, the Malay Heritage Centre is worth seeing not only for the fascinating exhibitions but also the beautiful architecture. Six permanent galleries and a rotating exhibition delve into not only the history of Singapore’s Islamic community but also into Malay art and niche perspectives on the region’s conflux of people. Note that the center is closed on Mondays.

Those looking for a vibrant introduction to the local arts scene should check out the Aliwal Arts Centre, an active multi-disciplinary performance space that frequently hosts musicians, dance troupes, poets and other stage talent. Check out their website for upcoming events and workshops. The Vintage Cameras Museum and Click Art Museum combine to make for a unique experience, featuring over 1000 cameras and several rare collections of photographs. Another enriching indoor option is the National Library Building on Victoria Street, which hosts myriad afternoon and evening events for both children and adults. Home to the country’s national archives, history and culture buffs can easily spend hours exploring the seven floors containing the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library.

6pm – 9pm 

Thanks to its vibrant murals and independent boutiques, the famous and famously hipster Haji Lane has become quite the Instagram spot in recent years. Though many of the shops and salons are closed on Mondays, during the rest of the week most are open from noon or 1pm to 8pm or 9pm. The area’s vibe amps up as the sun sets, especially on weekends when the street is closed to vehicles. Restaurants spill out to fill the space with tables and music. Equally cute and often a skosh less busy is Bali Lane, which runs parallel to Haji Lane and houses gems like Pita Bakery and Sticky Rice Thai Food. Not to mention Blu Jazz Café, a pillar of Singapore’s live music scene.

There are too many cute clothing stores, vivacious bars and hidden treasures in Kampong Glam to list them all, but the best part about walking around this colorful part of town is the opportunity to stumble across them yourself.

12 Hours in the Civic District

Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my piece on the cultural and historical heart of Singapore.

From architecture to food, heritage to nature, war memorials to high tea, the Civic District is the cultural and sociopolitical heart of the Singapore. If you have visitors who only have 12 hours in the country, this is where to spend it. If you have 12 months here, I highly recommend devoting a number of weekends and afternoons to exploring everything there is to see in this very walkable part of town.

Considered the birthplace of modern Singapore, the exact borders of the Civic District (sometimes called the Civic and Cultural District) vary, depending on who you ask and what search terms you put into Google. Generally, the area is considered to begin at the National Museum of Singapore and stretch southeast, ending at the waterfront.

Start your day with one of Singapore’s most iconic buildings, Raffles Hotel, which reopened this year after a lengthy refurbishment. Everyone goes for Singapore Slings at the Long Bar or for high tea, now served in the Grand Lobby instead of the Tiffin Room. While both are worthy outings, visiting Raffles Hotel early in the day allows you to see the gorgeous colonial architecture in the blush of morning light, and it’s likely to be far less crowded.

Read the rest here!

12 Hours in Punggol

Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my piece on the island’s northern coast.

Perched on Singapore’s northern coast, a day in Punggol means fresh air, seafood and plenty of physical activity. Believed to be one of the oldest settlements in the country, historical documents indicate that Kampong Punggol, situated around the jetty, existed over 200 years ago, predating the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

Unsurprisingly, due to the proximity to Malaysia, the first settlers were Malay and mainly fishermen who made their living off the waters surrounding the marshland. However, from the mid-19th century onwards, the area saw a steady influx of Chinese immigrants, most Teochew, who were primarily rubber tappers and poultry and pig farmers. Catholic missionaries also developed a foothold and built several churches and schools.

Punggol is a Malay word that loosely translates to “hurling sticks at the branches of fruit trees to knock them to the ground” and is presumed to also refer to a place where produce was sold wholesale. Up until the area’s very recent redevelopment, the forested areas along Old Punggol Road were prime hunting grounds for durian enthusiasts, who would sometimes wait hours for free, delicious durians to drop.

These days, the region has quite a different reputation. Over the past decade, Punggol has received a lot of TLC and attention from the government, thanks to a revitalized planning project initiated in 1996, but delayed by the Asian financial crisis. Positioned by the Housing Development Board as Singapore’s first eco-town, Punggol manages to be both a highly modern hub as well as a peaceful nature escape.

Read the rest here!

12 Hours in Tiong Bahru

The inaugural issue of the Living in Singapore magazine is out!

I got to spend an afternoon wandering around one of Singapore’s trendiest neighborhoods to craft a day-long itinerary that visitors and locals alike can enjoy.

With its blend of traditional shophouses and trendy cafes, Tiong Bahru is high on the must-visit lists of tourists and locals alike for its Instagrammable dishes, boutique shops and building-side murals. But the enclave is also a microcosm of Singapore history, particularly the last century. Tiong Bahru became hip and trendy just after World War II, though lost its exclusivity in the 1950s, when new housing blocks were built. Over the years, the area has been home to various of waves of residents: British civil servants, the Peranakans and Chinese, the mistresses of the wealthy and now a blend of locals, celebrities and expats. Each demographic has left its own impact, adding diverse layers that have transformed Tiong Bahru into something truly unique.

7am – 8am

Wake up with the neighborhood with an hour-long yoga class at Yoga Movement’s cozy studio. Their Basics class is a peaceful way to kick off the day, but there are also more intense classes, such as Power, Core or HIIT yoga for those looking for a real workout.

8am – 9am

After all that stretching and balancing, an indulgent breakfast is due. The famous Tiong Bahru Bakery is ideal for both sweet and savory dishes, but it can get quite crowded at peak hours. Fortunately, it’s not the only breakfast spot in town. Other eateries known for tasty baked goods and high-quality coffee include Caffe Pralet, the entirely gluten-free TIANN’S and Drips Bakery & Café.

Read the rest here!

Summer Round-Up: Weaving, Sugar and Libraries

Woo! It’s been a busy summer. (Yes, I still mentally divide the year into European/North American seasons even though I live on the equator.)

For those who don’t know, at the end of May I began writing weekly posts for StraitsBlog, the official blog of travel company StraitsJourneys. And because my boss is an awesome lady, she got us a partnership with Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS), who have been featuring my pieces in the Ready to Travel section of their website and app. A few have also appeared on Tourego.

Since these pieces are all fairly short (hooray for the #TLDR era), I thought I’d put them together in a periodic round-up instead of giving them all individual posts here.

And so…

Behold! My stuff.

14. The Tangled Roots of Countries’ Names (Part 1)

It’s easy to forget that the map of the globe wasn’t always the way it is today. Borders have been redrawn too many times to count. Populations were abruptly combined into states by colonizers. The names that locals gave to their lands sometimes stuck and were sometimes overwritten by a foreign nation’s interpretation…

13. WILD Eats

Organic produce and eating local might sound like modern trends but for the people of Sarawak in Borneo (Malaysia), it’s been a way of life for thousands of years thanks to the rich biodiversity of their 130 million year old rainforest. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo is estimated to contain more than 15,000 plant species, over 5,000 of which are found nowhere else on the planet…

12. Crafty Curriculum: Weaving and Indigo Go to School

The StraitsJourneys team recently joined our Expert Lynelle Barrett and Leong Minyi, founder of Mai Textile Studio, in leading a workshop for children at the Waldorf Steiner Education Association. This was an exciting way for StraitsJourneys to give back to the community, and also a chance to teach local kids about traditional textiles…

11. A LOOK UPSTREAM

The Republic of Singapore turns 53 this year and as usual, the National Day fireworks will take place where the Singapore River empties into the bay. Much like the country itself, the river reflecting these lights has shapeshifted throughout the past century…

10. UNUSUAL FINDS IN LIBRARIES

Generally, when you visit a library, you know what to expect: books for borrowing. Some people may have been shocked when shelves of CDs and DVDs for rent began cropping up, but here are a few libraries with even stranger finds amongst the stacks…

9. OLD PATHS TO NEW PLACES

Hanoi, a city that’s been standing for over 1000 years, has been going through a recent development boom. But even as skyscrapers are springing up, the scene on the ground is still flush with cultural gems and hidden corners. The new is being woven into the old, forming a thrilling tapestry of streets lined with both ancient temples and trendy cafes…

Photo Copyright: Andrey Maslakov

8. The Bitter History of Sugar

Between the endless articles on how sugar shapes our bodies and the endless advice on how to consume less of it, it’s rarely mentioned that sugar has also heavily shaped the modern world. And much like the cavities and diseases our bodies are wracked with, this deceptively harmless sweetener’s impact on the world is markedly negative…

7. Electric Akihabara

The story of the Akihabara shopping district in Tokyo is essentially the story of every high school nerd in the 1980s. Shops here were the first to sell and celebrate home computers at a time when they were only used by specialists and hobbyists, and naturally, their indoorsy consumers were also big fans of anime…

6. Art by Humans, Art by Nature

For those looking to spend the summer immersed in beauty, Penang should be at the top of the list. Thanks to its 130 million year old rainforest and 5,000 years of human civilization, the island has a wealth of both natural and man-made art. In fact, the whole month of August is devoted to it….

5. A Year in Literature

There is a beautiful line in Jhumpa Lahiri’s international bestseller The Namesake that you’ve probably seen floating around the internet: “That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” The exploration of unfamiliar lands can happen on the page or on a plane, and in some magical instances, both at the…

4. The Thread of History

Clothing has always straddled the line between art and function. Born out of necessity, methods of creating and wearing textiles have evolved to represent cultural values as well as individuality. With evidence of its existence dating back 27,000 years, weaving is one of humanity’s oldest activities. It is also one of the most universal…

3. The Multicultural Mosque

The end of Ramadan is fast approaching and there’s excitement in Singapore’s humid air. Hari Raya Puasa (also called Eid al-Fitr) is a holiday about generosity, charity and reflecting on one’s past actions. Since practicing Muslims conclude a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, it’s no surprise that food is also a huge component…

2. The Cultivated Elegance of Taiwanese Tea

When the phrase tea ceremony is mentioned, you likely think of Japan’s meticulous rituals or of Chinese wedding traditions. However, the lesser-known tea culture of Taiwan is no less captivating. “Tea is not merely a drink but an art form in Taiwan,” states Dave Lim, owner of Sun Ray Cafe in Singapore and…

1. Zoom into Angkor Wat

 As the largest religious monument in the world, the architecture of Angkor Wat is unquestionably impressive from a distance. The central temple stands at 213 meters tall. The entire complex spans 162.6 hectares. The city is comprised of more stone than all of Egypt’s pyramids combined. But equally impressive are the details…

Custom-Made: Then and Now

People often joke that shopping is Singapore’s national sport and, like the rest of the island, it has evolved drastically over the past 50 years. Read all about it in the June/July issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

 

Custom embroidery by Zann & Denn

Envision shopping in Singapore and it’s usually Orchard Road that pops into your head, a beacon of modernity, overflowing with brand name designers from all over the world. But just a few decades ago, a shopping spree here was a much different affair. Until store-bought fashion became readily available in the 1970s, tailors and dressmakers met all sartorial needs. Well-to-do society women would purchase paper sewing patterns from Robinsons, arguably Singapore’s most well-known department store, and then trawl for bales of fabric in the array of shops on High Street. Even celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor were known to visit these luxurious made-to-measure shops for one-of-a-kind gowns.

According to local musician Vernon Cornelius (affectionately known as the ‘Cliff Richard’ of Singapore), the start of the nation’s style consciousness was in the 1960s, when television and rock music came to the island. But in order to dress themselves in outfits they considered a “sincere form of expressing our own identity,” most young people like Cornelius had to save for weeks or months for custom, made-to-measure clothes. A far cry from the stockpile of cheap clothing now available at the click of a button.

While the nation’s love of shopping and fashion have in no way diminished, tailors have had to adjust to the times. The prevalence of online shopping has reduced the requests for made-to-measure clothes but has increased the demand for alterations. Fabric stores are fewer. Today, most are grouped together on Arab Street or in People’s Park Complex. Sewing has also become a less common skill, so the average age of dressmakers is rising, with fewer apprentices to take their places.

Suzanne Chua, a graduate of Raffles LaSalle, considers herself one of the youngest in the industry. “And I’m nearly fifty,” she laughs.

Chua and then-boyfriend-now-husband Dennis Koh jointly launched Zann & Denn in August 1997, currently located on Kreta Ayer Road, a few steps from Duxton Hill and Chinatown. Despite the challenges facing the industry, Chua remains hopeful that there will continue to be a market for bespoke clothing. After all, she notes, it’s not merely shopping. It’s an experience. And there’s nothing quite like owning something completely unique.

For Chua, maintaining her career in the made-to-measure industry has gone hand-in-hand with adaptation. She recently began collaborating with Universal Studios Singapore to create costumes for enormously popular events like Halloween Horror Nights. She comments that the free range to be creative in designing costumes has been invigorating.

“Passion is what keeps you going when the market is low. I’m not a person who gives up easily,” Chua says. “There were many, many tailors; it depends on who perseveres.”

If you’d like to further explore Singapore’s rich fashion history, check out the book Fashion Most Wanted by John de Souza, Cat Ong and Tom Rao.

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Eat This, Not That: Singapore Edition

For expat stomachs looking for familiar foods, get a taste of some alternatives in my piece for the May issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

For most people, it’s the stomach that takes the longest to settle into a new place. Even if your mind is thrilled at living in a different country and you love trying unfamiliar foods, at some point, your belly starts whining, “When can we go home?” While you can order practically anything online these days, the cost (both in time and money) of recreating your childhood favorites can add up quickly. But every problem is an opportunity in disguise, to quote John Adams, and this can be a great excuse to shake up your list of go-to meals. Below, I’ve rounded up some cheaper and/or local alternatives that you can substitute for your pricey favorites until your next trip home. Who knows? You may end up liking the substitutions better.

Instead of: Strawberries, Blackberries, Raspberries & Cherries
Try: Mangoes, Dragon Fruit, Mangosteens & Passionfruit

$12.80 for 9 strawberries, anyone? This was one of my stomach’s biggest temper tantrums, since ripe berries have been a longtime pleasure for me. But paying that much for a tiny punnet of watery berries just wasn’t worth it. Fortunately, the tropics are literally overflowing with fruit and the shorter distance fresh food has to travel to get to you, the healthier and tastier it will be. Due to their spiky, scaly and sometimes fuzzy appearances, regional fruit can appear intimidating, but look to the pineapple for encouragement. It also must have baffled Westerners when it first appeared on supermarket shelves, but we think nothing of its prickly hide these days. Give other tropical fruit a similar chance. (Though if you want to skip durian, no one will hold it against you.)

Instead of: Yoghurt
Try: Rice Pudding

With much of Asia being lactose intolerant, the options for yoghurt are limited and/or expensive. A French friend commented that the average yoghurt aisle back home was 20-30 meters, as opposed to the 2 meters here. However, you may have noticed there’s plenty of rice to be found and for fairly cheap. Rice pudding is simple to make at home and is comparable to yoghurt in texture and calorie count, though you won’t get the same bacterial benefits. Also like yoghurt, rice pudding can be sweet or savory. In Singapore, the most common flavors I’ve seen are mango or coconut.

Instead of: Potato chips
Try: Nori (dried seaweed)

You’ve likely already encountered nori as the wrapping on your sushi, but it’s also crazy tasty when in dried sheets. Plus, the health benefits leave other salty snacks in the dust. In 100 grams, nori has: Protein, Vitamin A, Folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium and Zinc. All for 35 calories and 0.28 grams of fat. Potato chips (even veggie chips) also boast some of the above vitamins and minerals, but for up to a whopping 536 calories per 100 grams, plus a ton more salt, sugar and 23 grams of fat. Prices between nori and potato chips are comparable too.

Instead of: Mexican food
Try: Arabic food

Another big heartbreak for me upon moving to Singapore was the scarcity of excellent Mexican food that wouldn’t break the bank. But have you ever noticed how similar Mexican and Arabic cuisines are? Compare the holy trio of guacamole, salsa and sour cream to the dips found in mezzes. According to chef Roberto Santibañez, flavors like cilantro, cumin and cinnamon wound up in Mexico centuries ago thanks to the Arabic empire’s spice routes. The most obvious overlap has to be tacos al pastor, which are directly descended from Lebanese shawarma. So, the next time you’re craving a bit of Mexican, head to the Arab Quarter and follow your nose. I doubt you’ll leave unsatisfied.

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Cheap Tricks: A Case Study

In the March issue of the Singapore American Newspaper, I reveal all (well, most) of my tricks for finding deals on flights and accommodation.   

Oh the Skies You'll Fly

Let’s say you’ve been invited to a wedding in Newburyport, Massachusetts. You’re past the congratulatory Skype call and now have to book flights and accommodation. Thankfully, you have a strategy and sit down at your computer with confidence. Being the savvy traveler you are, you know your web browsers track cookies and that booking websites might nudge up the price if you take your time. To get around this, you open a new window in incognito mode. In Google Chrome and Safari, this is enabled by hitting Control (Command for Mac users) + Shift + N. In Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, you hit Control (or Command) + Shift + P.

The wedding is Saturday June 16, so you decide to depart Singapore on Tuesday June 12 or Wednesday June 13 and to return on Tuesday June 19 or Wednesday June 20, because you know Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually the cheapest days of the week to fly. Google tells you the airport nearest to your destination is Boston Logan International, but you note that Manchester-Boston Regional as well as airports in New York and New Jersey are also feasible.

Time to search. You open six tabs in your incognito browser window: Kayak, Skyscanner, Kiwi, Expedia, Google Flights, and Momondo. If you were flying to a country within Southeast Asia, you would also check the websites of the regional budget airlines since these are often not indexed by the search engines. After inputting your dates and destination, you compare the results. Kiwi and Google Flights both indicate that in this case, departing Singapore on Monday June 11 is less expensive than Tuesday or Wednesday, and so you adjust your search parameters. In descending order, in SGD, the fare for a single traveler in Economy comes out to be:

  • $1410 on Kayak
  • $1315 on Expedia
  • $1238 on Kiwi
  • $1220 on Momondo
  • $1139 on Google Flights
  • $1018 on Skyscanner

You realize that the cheapest flight has two layovers and the total travel time to Boston is 42 hours. This doesn’t bother you, so you snap up the Skyscanner deal. Or you’re a human being and you fine-tune your filters to search for journeys with one layover and a travel time of 27 hours max. All the search engines now quote around $1430, with two exceptions. Kiwi’s estimating $1550, so you close that tab, and your heart skips happily that Google Flights’ quote remains at $1139.

You’re itching to snap up those tickets. But you take a deep breath and examine the details. The layover is a measly 2 hours but since both legs of the journey are operated by the same carrier and since you’ll be in London Gatwick, a small airport, that should be enough time to make your connection, despite traveling during the busy summer season.

And there’s one more angle to consider. Your hotel in Newburyport will cost about $150 SGD per night, $1200 for your entire stay, which means the total price of your trip would tally up to $2339. You check whether Kayak, Expedia or Momondo have package deals that can beat that. Momondo’s best offer is $2656 and Expedia’s is $2378, but lo and behold Kayak quotes you a package at $2013.

You again wisely counsel yourself to be patient and check the fine print. Sure enough, some tweaks have been made to your parameters. You would be leaving on Sunday June 10 and your hotel is in Boston, a 45-minute drive outside of Newburyport. You decide that’s a compromise you can live with, carefully reread all the details of your booking before paying, and then muse at the irony. The website that initially seemed like the worst deal wound up being the best.

BONUS TIPS!

Here are a few more resources, exclusive for my online readers.

I book trips to other countries once every other month, on average, and Secret Flying has some of the best deals I’ve ever seen. They track down short-term promotions and error fairs on airlines. At the time of writing, they’ve unearthed a deal that would let you fly from New York to Cambodia for just $470 USD roundtripTravel Pirates is a similar resource, though it focuses more on package deals and trips based out of the United States. Six nights in the Hawai’i Hilton plus roundtrip flights from Los Angeles for $890 USD, anyone?

What I like about Secret Flying and Travel Pirates is that they both give very clear instructions on on how to get the discount prices. You’re not surprised by fees or confused by the process, which is refreshing. If you’re flexible when it comes to timing and/or destination, you can find some amazing trip deals.

Lastly is a site for maximizing your layovers: Air Wander. My family lives 16-22 hours flight time from where I live and those long-haul journeys can be exhausting to tackle in one sitting. Enter Air Wander, which lets you pop in your dates, departure and destination, and the number of days you’d like to spend on a layover, and then searches for available options. You can even add more than one stopover or specify which cardinal direction you’d like to fly in.

Say I’m flying Singapore to Ireland on June 1st and can spare two days for a layover. Air Wander tells me that a stopover in Amsterdam will save me the most money, but lists all possible options and how much extra it would cost to stop there (Madrid’s only $8 USD). Turns out, I can fly one-way from Singapore to Amsterdam to Dublin for $430 USD. This isn’t necessarily cheaper than searching through Kayak or Kiwi, but it’s much more convenient than typing out all your multi-city parameters and I love having the ability to compare all possible long layovers without having to do repeated searches.

Happy Travels!

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Wanderlusters, Get Excited!

Appearing in the Jan. issue of the Singapore American Newspaper is my first piece of 2018!  

Vang Vieng, Laos

This is a fantastic year for long weekends, as almost all days off fall at the beginning or the end of the work week. In an homage to FOMO, below are some strategies for maximizing your free time.

Chinese New Year (Fri & Sat, Feb 16–17)

Our only 2-day holiday must be considered carefully. Those celebrating will be flying home to see family, which means, ironically, this is not the best time to visit China, nor countries with large Chinese descendent populations, such as Vietnam. Those not celebrating will be flocking in droves to Thai beaches and Cambodian temples, so skip those as well. Instead, make the most of our longest holiday by going further afield. For winter activities, Japan and Nepal are excellent for skiing and trekking respectively. If you’re craving sunshine, New Zealand and Australia will be in the middle of summer. As with Christmas in the West, the cost of flights and hotels shoot up during CNY, so plan ahead and book early.

Good Friday (Fri March 30)

Missing spring? Avoid the crowds and extravagant prices of Japan in cherry blossom season, by viewing the flowers in the Korean cities of Busan, Daegu and Jeju Island, which hosts an annual carnival. This is also the time to hit those temples in Cambodia. And if you don’t mind heat and humidity, Laos makes for a quiet getaway as it’s low-season for tourists.

Labour Day (Tues May 1)

Fall in New Zealand is a superb time to visit as the summer crowds will have left, the prices of attractions drop and the scenery is beautiful. For history buffs, Vietnam celebrates Reunification Day with processions and decorations on April 30. The more adventurous can fly to Pentecost Island, Vanuatu for the Naghol Land Diving Festival, where local men perform ritual bungee jumps using vines alone.

Vesak Day (Tues May 29)

This important day for Buddhists is celebrated in a variety of ways. Sri Lanka’s cities erect electrically-lit floats. Seoul hosts festivals and parades. Borobudur in Yogyakarta, Indonesia is glorious, as thousands of monks gather to chant while circling the temple. This is not a great occasion to visit most cities in India, as temperatures hover at 90°F plus. Keep cool at the annual Koh Samui Regatta in Thailand, which runs from May 26 to Jun 1.

Hari Raya Puasa / Eid al-Fitr (Fri June 15)

Marking the end of Ramadan fasting, Hari Raya Puasa brings festivities and closed businesses in Malaysia and Indonesia. While the atmosphere will undoubtedly be jubilant, note that many tourist destinations in Muslim countries may not be open during the holiday. In China, high-energy Dragon Boat Festivals will be happening from Beijing to Nanjing on June 18.

National Day (Thurs Aug 9)

This is high season on Vietnam’s coasts, where hotels are up to 50% more expensive, so travel inland to Hội An, Nha Trang and Huế, or book a junkboat to explore Hanoi’s dramatic Hạ Long Bay. Only an hour away by plane, George Town in Penang devotes the entire month to arts, culture and heritage. Make it a Malaysia tour by swinging down to Kuala Lumpur and then Malacca, where the weather will be dry and pleasant. It’s full-on monsoon season in India and South Korea, however, so give them a miss.

Hari Raya Haji / Eid-ul-Adha (Wed Aug 22)

A time for feasting with family and spiritual reflection, Hari Raya Haji is less rowdy than Puasa, so less compelling for visitors. Domestic travel, particularly buses and trains, within Malaysia and Indonesia will be packed. Around this time, the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival kicks off in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Among last year’s speakers were Markus Zusak, Padma Lakshmi and even the Queen of Bhutan herself.

Deepavali (Tues Nov 6)

Brave the crowds and head to India, which is a magical place during the Festival of Lights, especially Jaipur and Udaipur in Rajasthan. Weather-wise, this is also an ideal time for mountain treks in Nepal, strolls through Shanghai, or viewing autumn foliage in Japan. For trips easier on the wallet, head to Penang or Taipei, two destinations known for amazing street food, with hiking, shopping and historic sites all in easy reach. Hong Kong also boasts pleasant temperatures at this time of year.

Christmas Day (Tues Dec 25)

If you want Christmas spirit but aren’t looking to make a pilgrimage to Europe or the Americas, check out the Philippines. Manila and Cebu will be decked out in lights, and seasonal festivities are not to be missed in the provinces of Pampanga and Cavite. The cooler weather in Bangkok and Chiang Mai means Thailand is another good option. Or treat yourselves to an excursion to the Maldives. While prices are higher at Christmas, diving and snorkeling are incomparable as visibility is excellent during the dry season.

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Books to Gift for the Holidays

Published in the December issue of the Singapore American Newspaper are my recommendations for books to give to people on your Nice list this year:  

Whenever I’m stuck on what to get someone for Christmas, be it a new friend or a relative who wants for nothing, I head to a bookstore. Even though there are people who claim they never read physical books, I honestly believe there’s something for everyone, from audio books to e-readers to graphic novels. Here are a few recommendations – old, new, fiction, and non-fiction – to give you some ideas.

For Friends Back Home:

Give friends back home a window into your life abroad with Janice Y.K. Lee’s dramatic novel The Expatriates, which explores the emotions, identities and relationships of three very different American women in Hong Kong. For a taste of expat life in the 1920s, there’s Far Eastern Tales by W. Somerset Maugham, a collection of short stories born of Maugham’s experiences in Malaya, Singapore and other outposts of the former British Empire.

For the Literary Buff:

The novels of newly-minted Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro will surely be popular gifts this year, particularly The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. But plumb the works of previous winners of the prize and you’ll unearth a host of gift options for the friend who’s read everything. To name a few: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda, and the poetry of Nelly Sachs.

For the Sports Fan:

Sports psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow’s The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive will be an engaging read for both athletes and fans. The book examines how the mental game is just as if not more important than raw physical capability. On the fiction side, William Hazelgrove’s The Pitcher and Ross Raisin’s A Natural delve into the hearts of baseball and soccer respectively.

For the History Enthusiast:

Any fan of historical fiction will know of James Clavell’s epic Shōgun, but fewer have read his equally-gripping novel King Rat, which follows British and American inmates of Changi Prison during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. For those who lean towards non-fiction and/or American history, it’s hard to find a more epic yet intimate record than Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a chronicle of the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities.

For Young Adults:

Hot off the press is Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, a vibrant East Asian reimagining of The Evil Queen fairy tale. YA readers more drawn to narratives grounded in realism will undoubtedly be looking forward to John Green’s latest novel Turtles All the Way Down, which is about “lifelong friendship, the intimacy of an unexpected reunion, Star Wars fan fiction, and tuatara.”

For the Romantic:

Alice Hoffman’s entire oeuvre is not only romantic, it’s gorgeously written. While it’s hard to go wrong with Practical Magic, I’d also recommend The Probable Future, a novel about love always finding a way, whether you’re a teenager or a grandmother, recently divorced or alone for decades. For the readers on your list who want some adventure mixed in, there’s Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, a genre-defying story about World War II nurse Claire Randall, who is transported to turbulent 18th century Scotland and finds romance with the dashing warrior Jamie Fraser.

For the Chef:

Cookbooks are like expensive candles: beautiful but a bit too expensive to justify buying for oneself. Thus, they make excellent gifts. Love Real Food is a stylish vegetarian cookbook by Katherine Taylor of the blog Cookie + Kate, which I refer to religiously despite being a meat-eater. For friends who don’t mess around in the kitchen, there’s Marcella Hazan’s legendary Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a bible for anyone looking to seriously up their dinner game.

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Buying Books in Singapore

For the Sept 2017 issue of the Singapore American Newspaper, which is all about shopping, I got to ramble on about one of my favourite hobbies: buying books! 

Physical books are basically the best thing on the planet. Unfortunately, when you move between countries on said planet, your library can get awfully heavy (and costly) to take with you. Although it’s easy enough to fill your shelves in Singapore should you miss the crates of books you left in storage, even the most casual bibliophile will notice that prices here are higher than in the US. Don’t despair just yet! Researching your options will save you money and get you inhaling that delicious book smell in no time.

The Big Guys

Singapore’s largest bookstore is Japanese chain Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City, with smaller branches elsewhere in the country. Though Kinokuniya’s Japanese section is expectedly robust, it is far from the only offering, as the store has expansive fiction and non-fiction sections, everything from old classics to new bestsellers to cookbooks to graphic novels to magazines to travel guides. The prices – especially for new or hardback books – make me wince, but the selection is hard to beat. MPH, Times and POPULAR are other bookstore chains that can be found in multiple locations across the island. Keep an eye out for their sales, as you can often find some steals.

The Indie Bookstores

I’m a huge advocate of supporting independently-owned bookstores and since prices in Singapore are expensive anyway, I might as well put my money towards these community lynchpins. Manned by three indifferent cats and some passionate people, BooksActually in Tiong Bahru is a hub of the Singapore literature scene that features a variety of literary events, including readings by local writers. Just down the street is the adorable Woods in the Books, which specializes in thoughtfully-curated young children’s books. Taking up two stories in a cozy shophouse on Duxton Hill, Littered with Books has the personal air of a librarian’s home. The staff are happy to give you recommendations, but will also let you browse undisturbed for hours. Bliss.

Secondhand Books

For those more focused on content than presentation or those excited to spend an hour digging through piles of titles, pre-loved books are the way to go. Singapore isn’t big on secondhand items, but there are three well-established used bookstores that will serve you well, both in price and selection: Ana Bookstore in Far East Plaza, Book Treasure in Parklane Shopping Mall and Evernew Bookstore, which spills out of Bras Basah Complex onto the street. Happy hunting!

Specialty Bookstores

Sometimes your love of a subject goes deeper than what can be found on the average bookseller’s shelves. Also in Bras Basah Complex, Basheer Graphic Books’ astounding selection of books and magazines makes it a mecca for anyone fascinated by design in any iteration, whether it’s architecture, fashion, animation, typography – you name it. For those who don’t mess around in their love of the printed word, there’s GOHD Books on Bencoolen Street. Specializing in rare tomes and first editions (some from as far back as 1595), their stock isn’t cheap but it will make any book collector salivate. If you’re captivated by the continent we live on, look no further than Select Books, whose archive of publications on Asia is so wide, they supply resources to universities, researchers, libraries and governments (including the US Library of Congress). If their retail store in Toa Payoh is out of your way, you can also order from them online.

The Internet

The Internet, of course, is the most convenient source of books. However, don’t think Amazon is your only option, especially now that their Southeast Asia launch has been pushed back. Shipping costs hike the price up and although used books from third-party sellers on Amazon can be wildly discounted, you’ll find that many won’t ship internationally.

Your golden ticket is Book Depository. Though books often appear more expensive than Amazon at first glance, once shipping costs are added, you’ll find Book Depository to be cheaper as they offer free shipping to anywhere in the world. They also don’t require you to create an account to make a purchase. No store’s selection of books can beat Amazon’s, but Book Depository does come close. If you want faster delivery times, OpenTrolley is a Singapore-based online bookseller with prices comparable to local brick-and-mortar stores.

For the bibliophile who wants to support their reading addiction and support others simultaneously, Better World Books not only has free shipping worldwide and an enormous assortment of new and used books, but also donates a book to someone in need for every book purchased. As of today, they’ve donated over 23 million books and raised over $25 million dollars for literacy programs, including the non-profit Room to Read. Thanks to them, you can feel good about restocking your library, no matter where on the planet you find yourself.

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Essential Apps to Survive Singapore

My article on handy phone apps for those residing in the Little Red Dot appears in the August 2017 issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

Once the realm of flashy games and clunky layouts, smartphone apps have exploded into slick convenience geared at serving any need or want you can think of. One of the most technologically hooked-in countries on the planet, Singapore seems to have an app for just about everything. Even the government ministries, banks and bill-payment services can be accessed through your phone. If you’re new to town and feeling a bit lost (or aren’t new to town but feel lost anyway), these invaluable apps will help you de-stress and streamline your day-to-day life.

Settling In

Though 99.co isn’t as established as PropertyGuru, their app is excellent for finding HDBs, condos and landed houses to rent or buy. GoGoVan and LaLamove are easy ways to obtain movers and couriers for jobs as small as food deliveries and as large as an apartment’s worth of furniture. If you don’t own a car but just raided Ikea, these apps are lifesavers.

The biggest challenge upon moving to an unfamiliar city is to pin down amenities, like the closest hospital, most convenient supermarket, your nearest ATMs., etc. For all of those and more, WhereTo.sg has got you covered. The app is still in beta, so there are a few bugs, but the website is solid.

Particularly handy for new arrivals or solo expats, Meetup is exactly what it sounds like: an app that allows you to meet people who share your interests. From walking groups to single moms to language exchanges, the choices are endless.

Shopping & Eating

Carousell is the local equivalent of eBay. You can buy and sell just about everything here, from hair accessories to houses. Perfect if you need to furnish a new apartment without breaking the bank.

Restaurants fill up fast in this little country, so reservations can be critical. HungryGoWhere and Chope are the go-to apps for making bookings. Yes, you’ll likely need both, as their lists of restaurants don’t always overlap.

Also a website, RedMart is one of the best grocery ordering apps in Singapore. The wide range of options and the ability to choose a 2-hour delivery slot make this an incredibly useful service.

Getting Around

If you rely on public transport (and in Singapore, why wouldn’t you?), then Citymapper will be your new best friend. In addition to the convenient “Get Me Home” button, the app even tells you which routes to your destination will keep you out of the heat the most!

Need a ride? You’ve got your pick of apps, from the official taxi companies, ComfortDelGro and SMRT, to ridesharing options like Uber and the well-priced Grab. Four apps might seem like overkill, but there will come a rainy Friday afternoon when you’ll be glad for back-up options.

Hunting for a specific item in an unfamiliar mall can suck up hours of your day, especially since store info on Google Maps can be inaccurate or out-of-date. Pocket Malls Singapore not only allows you to search by store name and category, it also includes maps and directories of all major malls.

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Clueless About Coffee

Published on August 1, 2016 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

With its mélange of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian culinary influences, it’s no surprise that Singapore has a long history of drinking tea. Less expected is the city’s love affair with coffee, evident in the plethora of cafés and kopitiams. Sadly, I have never been a coffee drinker and usually opt for a mocha (aka a hot chocolate with caffeine) when presented with a menu of artisanal coffees. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Short Black and a Flat White. Isn’t cold drip coffee just…coffee that’s cold?

Tired of feeling bamboozled at brunches with friends, I decided to get an education. The Singapore Coffee Association, established in the 1950s, pointed me towards a range of options, including Dutch Colony Coffee Company’s variety of workshops. Both Bettr Barista and Highlander Coffee have “Coffee Academies” for the uninitiated, but in the end, I registered for Highlander’s two-hour Gourmet Coffee Appreciation Seminar because it fit my schedule and the price was reasonable. Plus, it promised to “demystify the art and science of making specialty coffee.”

The seminar was held in Highlander Coffee Bar’s spacious backroom on Kampong Bahru Road and was taught by the founders, charismatic brothers Phil and Cedric Ho, who have been educating others on coffee since 2004. Against a backdrop of counters laden with gleaming, complicated coffee machines, Phil walked us through the history of local coffee, which began in the late 18th century thanks to an influx of European immigrants. This led to the birth of the kopitiam (a very Singaporean term combining the Malay word for “coffee” and the Hokkien word for “shop”) and the trademark Hainanese style thick, sweet coffee that is still on the menu today. Since then, the local coffee culture has blossomed. Specialty cafés in the style of Melbourne’s famous coffeehouses, including pioneers like Highlander Coffee and 40 Hands, became all the rage a few years ago and the fire has yet to die down.

“Freshness is the key to good coffee. Always believe in GOD: Grind On Demand,” Phil said, as he passed around varieties of beans. I finally understood that a coffee bean was actually the pit of a coffee cherry. It was mind-boggling to learn how much labor (planting, picking and roasting) went into a single bag of coffee beans. He also revealed that the longer the roasting process, the more body and bitterness the coffee bean has, but the less caffeine (which surprised me).

After Phil’s history lesson, Cedric demonstrated the ideal method of brewing coffee with a table of steaming jugs, shining presses and glass containers more suited to a chemistry lab. He highlighted how temperatures, the age of the beans, the fineness of the grind, the treatment of milk and the type of press all intersect at different points to alter the flavor and quality of a cup of joe. This explanation was, of course, followed by tastings: finely ground Ethiopian coffee from an aeropress, coarsely ground Brazilian from a French press with foamed milk (the first cup of coffee without sugar that I’ve ever enjoyed) and a house blend espresso. The two hours flew by. I now know that “light/medium/dark” refers to how long the beans have been roasted, that high calcium milks can’t be used to make foam and why espresso machines make that high-pitched whooshing noise.

Plus, I finally learned the difference between a Short Black and a Flat White! (A Short Black is simply the Australian term for espresso while a Flat White is a cappuccino without the foam). Who knew?

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Singapore’s YouTubers Poke Fun at Locals and Expats

Published on June 30, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

As many expats and students of foreign languages can tell you, humor is often the final frontier in cross-cultural communication. Jokes risk falling flat, are a nightmare to translate and have the potential to offend. But they can also be a way for expats to understand the cultural norms of their new home.

Local movies and television shows can help, but the grassroots nature of YouTube videos can be even better. On YouTube, the comedy is rougher, the jokes are more of the moment, and the creators are more accessible, often responding to viewers’ questions in the comments sections. And you don’t have to suffer through being the only person not laughing in a comedy club.

Despite Singapore’s reputation as a place that limits free speech, several homegrown YouTube channels offering self-parodying commentary on local topics have sprung up in the past few years. Among the first were Wah!Banana and Night Owl Cinematics (Ryan Sylvia), which were both launched in the second half of 2012, and currently rank as the second and third most-subscribed-to channels in Singapore. The original cast of Wah!Banana has since left to form TreePotatoes, which is now number five. With topics like What Foreigners Think of Singapore and 11 Types of Singaporean Colleagues, these YouTubers have created a space where both Singaporeans and expats can chuckle about Singapore’s unique, sometimes absurd, quirks.

For example, one thing that often comes up is the kiasu attitude of many Singaporeans. The most accurate translation of kiasu is probably FOMO — fear of missing out — which Wah!Banana, Night Owl Cinematics and TreePotatoes all duly mock. The videos depict people waiting in a line just because it’s long, hoarding free ketchup packets, and trampling others to be first on a bus. These not only highlight Singaporeans’ ability to laugh at themselves, they also lessen the “us versus them” mentality expats occasionally develop.

“I think our videos help to show expats a side of Singaporean life they wouldn’t usually get to see unless they have very close local friends,” said Aaron Khoo, a producer, writer and actor on TreePotatoes. “The typical media portrayal of Singaporeans in recent years tends to shy away from the local culture and Singlish,” the local variant of English blended with Chinese dialects, Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil. “We prefer to embrace the local identity and laugh at its idiosyncrasies.”

Lingyi Xiong, a producer, writer and actor on Wah!Banana, said that often the depiction of Singapore in overseas media “is about how modern or advanced this place is, or it’s about the food in hawker centers. It’s nice but it’s traditional. It’s not really local enough.” The channel’s 10 Types of People in the Hawker Center video offers a tongue-in-cheek counterpoint.

Sylvia Chan, who co-founded Night Owl Cinematics with her husband Ryan Tan, said “our videos showcase how we behave and how we are. Many expat friends and fans tell us that our videos taught them how to interact with their Singaporean colleagues,” and are an “unofficial portal to know and understand Singapore.”

Expats get a chance to laugh at themselves too. The Wah!Banana video Ang Mo vs Singaporean remains one of their most popular. Ang mo is Hokkien for “red-haired” and has long been the local slang for “white person.” Its use is periodically mean-spirited but most often is not. In the video, sometimes Singaporeans are the butt of the joke and sometimes Caucasians are, but most of the parodies are funny.

YouTubers can get away with presenting a more grounded, less politically correct version of life in Singapore than other media outlets, most of which are government-owned. However, they still operate in a country that saw a teenaged YouTuber arrested for obscenity and “insulting communication” charges last year. As a result, Singapore never comes off looking too poorly despite the satirizing.

Night Owl Cinematics’ If Singaporeans Were Honest video, made for the country’s 50th National Day celebration, is one of the few exceptions. Criticizing Singapore’s bad points with heavy sarcasm, the video begins with a disclaimer on “vulgarity” and ends with reassurances that the criticism is meant as a patriotism-tinged reminder for Singaporeans to be kinder and more grateful. In this way, homegrown YouTube channels not only reveal local humor, but also show how values and traditions actually translate into everyday life.

Like all introductions, there is a learning curve. “Foreigners might have difficulty understanding our accents and our content when they first watch our videos,” Ms. Xiong said. “For some of our videos, you do have to spend a period of time here to understand them better. I think some of the jokes are quite unique. They’re definitely funnier if you’ve been here a while.” Aware of the barrier that Singlish often presents, Night Owl Cinematics includes subtitles on their videos.

As for the future of YouTube in Singapore, the challenge now is to continue appealing to the niche that made them popular while also pivoting to a general audience. Ms. Chan noted that three years ago she thought their site would shift to more international content. “But the thing is we realized despite us focusing on our Singaporean-ism, we gained a lot of international and foreign audience during this period.” Similarly, Ms. Xiong has seen their viewer demographic shift from 80% males aged 25 and younger to a 50/50 gender divide. Although 18-34 is still their main age group, it’s less than 30% of their total audience.

The major problem with local YouTube channels, said Ms. Xiong, is the lack of variety. Like the country itself, Singapore’s community of YouTubers is relatively small, so content and ideas often overlap.

Nevertheless, Ms. Xiong said she thinks more diversity is on its way. “I’ve seen some new players this year…and they seem really promising and new and different.” She added that the Wah!Banana team is considering making a “Shit Expats Say” video in the coming months. I can’t wait.

Living in Singapore: Lifestyles Chapter (Updated!)

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The Living in Singapore Fourteenth Edition Reference Guide is finally out!

Written by expats for everyone, the guide gives essential information for a seamless move to and maximum enjoyment out of the Lion City. It’s published by the American Association of Singapore and each chapter is written by an experienced writer with many years of living in Singapore (like me!), giving readers the best possible insight into life here.

Living in Singapore

I wrote the original Lifestyle Chapter for the Thirteenth Edition in 2014 and this year I had the opportunity to update it. The chapter covers everything from political activism to pornography laws to libraries to the LGBT scene to environmentalism to religion. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

So, you’re fully unpacked. You’ve figured out your morning commute. The kids are settling into their new school. Your phone is loaded with local emergency numbers. You know where the nearest grocery store is. All the basic necessities have been taken care of. Now what?

In a diverse, modern metropolis such as Singapore, there’s no reason to simply hunker down and survive your time as an expat. While it’s always difficult to leave behind the communities that matter to you, you don’t have to sacrifice your passions just because you find yourself living abroad. It’s important to tailor your life as an expat to your preferences, lest you begin to resent your new environment.

Perhaps you’re a devoted Protestant seeking a church to attend. Perhaps you’re hearing impaired and wondering how to find a new circle. Perhaps you’re a compulsive environmentalist or a BDSM fetishist or a bookworm. Perhaps you’re all of the above. Our lifestyle choices are what make our lives ours, no matter where we are. This chapter covers a few ways to transplant your old habits, hobbies and values into this fresh setting. You might even be inspired to try something new.

This year, we even have a funny commercial to promote the guide!

You can purchase Living in Singapore as an eBook through Amazon, Apple iBookstore, or Google Play.