Three Ways to Do 12 Hours in Sentosa

Now out! The latest issue of the Living in Singapore magazine, featuring my trio of itineraries for the nation’s staycation capital.

As with much of Singapore, it’s difficult to glean the history of Sentosa from its current well-developed status. While wandering around the aquarium or the luxury casino, you’d never know that for over 500 years, it was called Pulau Blakang Mati; “the Island Behind the Dead” in Malay. Shaping the island into a holiday resort for locals and tourists began soon after Singapore gained independence in 1965, making it one of the government’s earliest projects. Obviously, Step One was to christen it with a more welcoming name. Sentosa translates to “peace and tranquility” in Malay.

Singapore’s so-called State of Fun is probably one of the easiest places in the country to while away half a day. This whole article could just be: pack a cooler with snacks and drinks, find a spot to lay your towel on the beach, then alternate between snoozing and swimming. This article could also just be a catalog of every activity you could do on Sentosa, since the list is plenty long enough. Thus, instead of a general itinerary, I’ve concocted three. One for a fun day with family, one for active adrenaline junkies and one for an indulgent day out.

Read the rest HERE!

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!

Politicomma on Wattpad

When the publishing industry gives you lemons, you give Wattpad a try. I’ll be posting a new chapter of my novel Politicomma every Thursday.

Politicomma Wattpad Cover

Jackie “Firespike” Melendez is thrilled with her recent promotion at Politicomma, one of the twelve pillar blogs that replaced the disarray of the old internet. But a simple assignment to track down a hacker targeting her team gets complicated when Firespike not only discovers the hacker is someone close to her, but also stumbles upon a plot to bring down the entire technological infrastructure of America.

At least she’s met a few cute guys while dealing with this mess. Too bad more than one of them isn’t exactly what he seems.

Politicomma was the first novel-length work I completed, edited and considered truly finished. My agent and I had a hard time finding a publisher that was a good fit for it, likely because it straddles genres. It wasn’t quite science fictiony enough to be sci fi, but it was a bit too speculative to be considered straight-up general fiction.

The last time I looked at this story was exactly three years ago and I was prepared to cringe hard, since I have a habit of hating my older work, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of Politicomma still holds together. Plenty still needs to be polished and de-adverbed, and I feel like my style has changed enough that I probably won’t re-submit it to publishers, but it seemed a shame to leave a project I spent so much time on in the desk drawer. So, maybe by publishing it on Wattpad, it’ll get a bit of love.

Winter Round-Up: eSports, Fake Food & Birds of Paradise

Behold the second installation of my round-up of the weekly posts I’ve written for StraitsBlog, the official blog of travel company StraitsJourneys, some of which have been featured in the Ready to Travel section of the Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS) website and app.

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.

Traditional Filipino parol. Copyright : ewastudio 

26. Vibrant Christmas Traditions in Asia

Christmas has long grown beyond a simple Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. The combination of glittering decorations, gift exchanges and the spirit of goodwill towards mankind has kept the holiday popular even amongst non-Christians. Traditions have, of course, evolved over time (Mary and Joseph did not deck the manger with strings of blinking LED lights) but they’ve also been localized in a myriad of ways…

25. Real Destinations for Virtual Competitions

It may seem strange to travel to a foreign country to watch people play a game on a screen, but live eSports events are no joke. The major tournaments frequently outperform both the NBA Finals and World Series in viewership, and with sponsors like HP, Samsung, T-Mobile and Toyota, money is flowing in to create dedicated spaces where fans can cheer for their favorite teams….

24. A Tasting Course of Singapore Architecture

With its blend of traditional shophouses and trendy cafes, Tiong Bahru is high on tourists’ must-visit lists for its Instagrammable dishes and building-side murals. But it’s also a microcosm of Singapore history, particularly the last century, as well as a hub of heritage trails and hidden green spaces. StraitsJourneys expert Dr. Tai Wei Lim said it best when he described Tiong Bahru as the historical bridge between pre-war, post-war and post-independent Singapore…

23. Three Ways to Do Tea in NYC

Autumn is the perfect time of year to snuggle up in a tea shop with a thick book or a few friends. After the sweaty slog of summer in New York City, the crisp weather sends a crackle of energy through the streets. The cooler it gets outside, the cozier it gets inside…

22. Overlooked Art Museums

Every major cosmopolitan city has its star art museum. And while the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York have earned their international acclaim, their fame can make visiting these renowned galleries a crowded experience. Fortunately, there are a few places off the beaten track where you can view breathtaking masterpieces in relative quiet…

21. A Treat for the Eyes: Japan’s Fake Food Industry

In his 1933 manifesto on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows, author and novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō notes: “It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten.” While he couldn’t predict how globally famous Japan’s fake food would become, I’m betting he wouldn’t have been surprised…

Copyright : Gustavo Frazao  

20. Organic Wines of Sonoma County

Just 45 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma County has a well-earned reputation as one of California’s top wine regions. Recently, it’s appeared in the news due to a dramatic series of wildfires, but Dionysus must be watching over Sonoma because the smoke has cleared and its vineyards continue to welcome visitors with open arms…

19. Jewels of the Jungle: Birds of Paradise

“It’s difficult not to be enchanted by the birds-of-paradise. They’re some of the most extraordinary birds in the world,” commented Ch’ien Lee, accomplished biologist and professional photographer. The diversity in their extravagant plumage is astonishing, often including highly elongated and elaborate feathers extending from the beak, wings, tail or head in all colors of the rainbow….

18. Beijing to Taipei: An Art Collection’s Wild Journey

What was Chiang Kai-shek doing lugging art out of China? Stealing priceless antiquities, according to some. Rescuing them from destruction, according to others….

17. The Otherworldly Architecture of Turkmenistan

The absurd splendor of Turkmenistan’s architecture hits you from the get-go with its airport. The main terminal in Ashgabat International is shaped like a soaring falcon and cost $2.3 billion USD to construct. This sparked some controversy as critics claimed the building was much larger than needed to handle the country’s relatively low traffic rates. When I passed through two years ago, that was very much the case….

16. Wildlife Photography: Advice from an Expert

These days, anyone can take a picture at any time, but that doesn’t mean the art of photography is as easy to master. This is especially true when it comes to photographing wildlife, an endeavor that often takes more patience than specialized equipment….

15. The Tangled Roots of Countries’ Names (Part 2)

Naming a country is complicated. Sometimes it’s appropriate to draw from historical context and sometimes it’s better to create a brand new moniker. Sometimes it’s easier to just call a place after its landscape and sometimes it’s worth taking the time to craft a name that will reflect everyone involved. As previously mentioned, the origin stories behind nations’ names, tangled and strange though they are, can be separated into groups….

BONUS: Exposure

In addition to featuring my short story Terra Incognita,  Ruminate Magazine also invited me to write something on the issue’s theme of exposure for the “Last Note” section in the back of the magazine.

This was one of those pieces that wouldn’t come out when I tried, and I just had to wait until it smacked me upside the head. Honestly, writing sometimes feels more like being a conduit than a producer.

Exposure - Laura O'Gorman Schwartz

 

Terra Incognita

Very excited to announce my short story Terra Incognita received Honorable Mention in the 2018 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and has been published in the Fall 2018 issue of Ruminate Magazine! The theme of this issue was “exposure” and my story is about the impact of a new map arriving in a small town in Flanders in the 15th century.

Yyyyeah, this is one of my weirder ones.

The old map had congealed to the wall, taken on its texture. There was no removing it completely, so they didn’t remove it at all, just pinned the new map on top of it, bottom corners loose and still curled from the roll it had slept in. Word ambled down the street and the neighbors came to see the new face of their country. Big-cheeked Hanna, spackled with flour. Blonde Ria with her skinny husband. The young, curly-haired brothers Isidoor and Thomas. Erik, old and bearded. The very pregnant Juytken. Pretty Jo, the town’s white flower. Philip and his two flunkies – a gang formed in boyhood and cemented by adolescence. A few others. The tavern seemed embarrassed to be so full in midday, caught in the light. Perhaps it was this unusual combination of time and place that dampened their spirits and lent the rosy new map a poisonous sheen.

The town wasn’t invested in books. With no library or school, with the sea far to the northwest, the old map had been a rare window into the country beyond their fields. For some, it had been the only window. Ivo the innkeeper had won it over a decade ago, in a card game with a sailor in Antwerpen in 1504. Ivo hadn’t felt old yet then. Hanna hadn’t been married. Ria’s youngest was still alive. Erik had yet to be widowed. The map had hung above the bar since. It softened with them. The colors lightened. The words gently bled. The tiny ships on the painted waves of the Germanicus Oceanus contracted into strange ink creatures. Over the years, the map ceased to be, or perhaps never was, a representation of their country; in the townspeople’s minds, it was their country.

And in the span of a short morning, the world they believed was aging with them had been replaced with a crisper, more vibrant version. Borders they had come to think of as blurred and gauzy became impenetrable again. A black line squiggled down and around the land, marking the edges, trapping them inside. Even the eternal northwest waters had a new name: Maris Germanici. Hanna and Ria joked and scoffed. As though you could change the name of the sea! More startling, their familiar country was crammed with at least twice as many cities and towns as before, nests of calligraphy punctuated by circles and corralled by weaving roads. The old yellowed map had been spotted with its share of settlements, but the names had long been demoted to decorative details, a pattern for one’s eyes to roost in while a tankard was drained.

Thomas buzzed about, investigating the musty adulthood of the tavern, new territory for the 12-year-old. He tilted his head back to take in the map.

“Have all those towns existed all this time? Or are they new?”

The innocent question was a stab in the ribs of the gathered adults. They didn’t know. As before, Ivo had dabbed a spot of red paint on their town. But the comfort of knowing precisely where they were on the Lord’s green earth had vanished. How could anybody feel found in a crowd like that?

“The old map was better,” Ria declared, blonde eyebrows pinched together. “This one has errors.”

Ivo had left his duties to his overburdened wife in order to preen amongst his neighbors. Though a regular traveler out of town, he hadn’t acquired the map for geographical guidance; for that, he preferred the compass of his own memory. The map drew him for another reason. The warm palette and dark lines, the chocolatey curls and perked ends of the letters, the mellifluousness of the incomprehensible Latin maxim that crowned the frame – the entire composition was pleasing. When his gaze sank into it, a panting horse into a cool river, he felt that his heart and his mind were connected. Closer than connected. That they were the same. Just as black dots on rich paper could also be a sea. Both the sailor’s map and this newer one climbed inside him and stayed there. Art, however, was not a well-trod topic in their town and, if asked, Ivo would have said that he couldn’t say a single word on the subject.

He rounded on Ria.

“This map does not have errors. It’s just more recent.”

“No,” Ria insisted. “There aren’t that many towns.”

“How would you know?”

“It’s common sense. Look at how crushed together all the names are. Are we really supposed to believe there is no countryside in our country? Look outside!”

“I bet the mapmaker invented some towns so he could f-feel important,” Philip asserted, juvenile ego tripped by jitters.

Ivo set his jaw and folded his great arms. Had he known the phrases artist’s interpretation and not true to scale, he would have used them. As it was, he could only sense their unarticulated truth.

“Perhaps you could put both maps up?” Hanna submitted, picking at the dough drying on her knuckles.

“No, I won’t have an out-of-date map on my wall.”

“It was fine for the last ten years and suddenly it’s out of date?” Philip asked with a huff, glancing over at his lackeys.

“We didn’t need a new map,” one said.

“We didn’t want one,” the other added.

“This is my tavern and it’s staying.”

“It’s a disgrace!” Ria snapped in a tight voice. “It’s— What proof do you have that these towns are real? You have no right to spread errors, maybe even lies, about our country.”

She had been like this in childhood too, Ivo remembered. Her temper and tears erupted if you changed the rules midgame, if you told a story differently than before, if you abandoned the plan. Her heels were forever dug into the earth. Ivo pitied her husband, a man who was clipped around the edges and crumpled in.

The argument continued, heating the pub to a stuffiness only enjoyed by the passionately angry or by drinkers on a winter evening. Hanna attempted to placate Ria, but Philip’s gang was teething, hoping for a real fight to chew on. They followed up on Ria’s flares with handfuls of fuel. Younger and slimmer than the other men, curly-haired Isidoor kept both his tongue and his little brother in check. Beautiful Jo was still entranced by the new map and paid attention to none of them. Erik stroked his greying beard and held the door for the waddling Juytken. Age serving youth. Near-death serving near-life.

Blue skies on a market day meant a busy street. Children in filthy smocks brandished sticks and screamed their games. Straw baskets filled, townspeople who had heard the gossip gravitated towards the inn. Erik helped Juytken out of their path.

“You ought to return home. Walking around in your condition is dangerous,” Erik said.

Juytken nodded. The fingers not curled under her pregnant belly were fiddling with the sleeve of her linen undershirt. She studied the knobbed hand Erik rested on his walking stick.

“What do you think of the map?” she asked.

“I’m too old for it to make any difference to me.”

“The world around us changes so quickly. Ten years and the country has been completely redrawn,” Juytken mused, eyes lowered. “How can I know what sort of place my son will grow up in?”

“Take it from me. Some things don’t change.”

Juytken gave him a smile and made her way down the street, layered skirts skimming the earth. Erik monitored her until she turned the corner. Youth cannot believe what Age tells them to be true. It won’t be real until they have aged themselves. But he was correct. Some things didn’t change. A pint of ale will always improve a meal. A new map will always cause an upset. A young wife filled to the brim with life will always be a blessing. It was the natural flow of time. Juytken’s son would be his third grandchild. She was downriver from her mother’s pregnancies and from Erik’s own wife’s, the last of which took her from this realm.

The road east shrank, became a path that bordered the farms. Escorted by his wooden cane, Erik’s steps were unhurried. Sheep bleated and moved as one away from the fencing. Clouds dragged a net of shade across the green fields. And he was an old man wandering after his thoughts, recalling how his wife’s right leg had a slight limp that made her shy. When she died, the priest assured Erik that such a good woman was unquestionably with our Lord in his Kingdom. It was a comfort to hear and it was what Erik repeated to his children, but he was embarrassed to discover that he was unable to imagine his wife in heaven. Erik was never a man for daydreams or fantasies, and he simply couldn’t place the image of her anywhere but home. Since birth, she had fit her years comfortably into their town, a small circle of which her and Erik’s house became the center. Even attending church or walking to the market spurred a frenzy of preparation. Her impatience to return to the cauldron, the cradle, the clutter of half-woven garments, often snipped conversations with neighbors short. A frequent and amicable patron of Ivo’s, Erik had found this tiresome. After her death, it troubled him. How could a woman who had burrowed, body and soul, into this patch of earth, a woman who had never followed the road east beyond the farms, traverse the long journey to heaven?

A chilly breeze slinked through the expanse of sunshine. Erik held his wool cap to his head and listened to the rustling trees. The new map spread itself out in his mind, the precise lines, the four tiny trees, and he was delighted to see a figure on the butter-colored paper, barely more than a dot, traveling through the copse, away from the red heart of their town. The roads were so neatly marked. The rivers. Finally, they both had a guide. The path towards the borders – of the country, of the sea, of the entire map – was distinct yet crossable, even with her uneven gait. After a pause on the edge, she stepped off into an ungraspable realm, a kingdom of faith hidden in the thin air. The thought lightened Erik’s bones and his feet. Sunlight swept across the grass, like satisfaction. Joy, even.

The quarrel at the tavern swelled and receded and swelled again. After failing to douse Ria’s blistering hisses, big-cheeked Hanna – whose heart pounded whenever voices were raised – retreated to the bakery. Young Thomas’s question stalked after her, clinging to the hem of her kirtle.

“Well?” Her husband asked, sweating.

She circled the loaves of bread, retied her apron, shrugged.

“Ria thinks it’s fake, that there are too many towns for it to be a true map.”

“No reason to change what works,” he said, shrugging back.

Grunting, he opened the oven grate and withdrew a pan of hot and fluffy koekjes. The aroma of butter mingled with the brusque smell of charcoal and the autumnal scent of chopped apples resting in a bath of spices. Hanna hunched over the table to pull and knead the dough for appelflappen, massaging it thin with her chubby fingers, loving strokes she had learned years ago, when she married both a man and his trade. No reason to change what works. A recipe can be played with a little – raisins added, perhaps – but the ratio of flour to sugar to fats had long been determined. Like the name of the sea.

“Hanna. Why are you crying?”

“I’m sorry. It’s frightening.”

“The map?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a painted picture. That’s all.”

“I feel small, as though I was a mouse all along.”

“You’re certainly not the size of a mouse,” he chuckled, belly jiggling.

But she didn’t smile. In front of her gaze hung the circle of their village, a droplet once buffered by empty space, now swept up in a swarm. All those towns filled with strangers. All those roots unearthed and bared to the sun. Names for things that didn’t need names. The more men stuck pins into the land, speared it with titles and dimensions, the more it would bleed. A pile of cake ingredients was not appetizing, couldn’t they see that? It was only the whole, the elements combined, that made something sweet and wonderful. Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great. To fear a gnawing appetite for knowledge was humanity’s earliest lesson and still there was this vulgar reaching for higher and higher branches of the tree. One did not inherit the Kingdom of God by dismantling and renaming His creations. Nor by following any ink-sodden map.

If their dear country could erupt in a sudden wealth of new details, like the distant hills sharpening after a storm, then what other unknowns lay hidden, ready to pounce? Insignificance wormed into Hanna for the first time since girlhood and her hands trembled. She could be crushed by so much, all that she couldn’t see and didn’t know. It was one thing to feel small and humble next to the unfathomable glory of one’s Savior, but to be trampled underfoot by unknown armies from unknown cities, the human unknown… Her shoulders rose in a fear that set the Lord’s Prayer rumbling over her tongue.

Its familiar rhythm lulled her back into her work. Dough, apples, sugar. The formulas and measurements, the simple causes and effects, formed a landscape she knew intimately, one she could find shelter in. She would hold to the mystery of faith, the recitations of recipes. Give us this day our daily bread. Warm water and warm milk so the rolls rise properly. Add the flour a tablespoon at a time. And deliver us from evil. Amen.

Hanna wasn’t the only one ruffled by Thomas’s question. It roosted in his elder brother Isidoor’s mind, noisy, feathers and droppings coating his contemplation. Which did he prefer? That other towns had lain cloaked in mist all this time? Or that they had sprung up out of the earth like weeds in a neglected kitchen garden? Ignorance or rapid change? Hoping to avoid the notice of Philip and his drudges, he gave the map his full attention, fluttered from town to town, forwent space and time to touch on all the borders, run down the canals, and pause in places that resembled the names of people he knew. Canegem. Tempelmare. Dadisele. Trechyn. Gendt, of course. Antwerpen. He’d like to see Antwerpen. Just once. Just to peek at the crashing flow of life in an international city, the Italian sugar and Portuguese pepper, the Spanish gold and American silver, the scholars and the sailors in combat with uncertainty. Just to walk alongside men who saw the coast as a starting point instead of an end, who entered into long affairs with the unknown.

And after seeing the worn and weathered faces of these men, Isidoor would be glad to come home. He was sure of it. How little the void attracted him, the opaque waters, the days flung wide open and blinding, especially in comparison to his work, his mother, his brother, the pleasant possibilities and manageable problems he would have here. Thomas, though, would become the type of man that the bottomless sea, with its promise of sugar and silver, would seduce away. Isidoor could only hope that she wouldn’t take his brother’s life as payment for his curiosity.

Isidoor’s eyes descended from the heights of the map to Jo’s pale and freckled face, which glowed in the half-light, framed by a wheat-colored linen hood. They had only spoken two or three times, nodded to each other at the market – her hands separating gourds and cabbages, his full of upside-down and baffled chickens – but for Isidoor she was a clearer map to his future than any. He could see, though, that Ivo’s new atlas held her fast. She seemed deaf to the clamoring newcomers, to Philip’s exaggerated posturing, to the squabble that ended with Ria yanking her husband out the door. Was Jo dreaming of travel, too? Of Gendt or Antwerpen? Of an adventure they could hold up years from now and see their reflections in? It was as though she was having a conversation with the map, a dialogue he didn’t understand and so could not interrupt. He resolved to wait for the right moment.

Philip shouldered past Isidoor, his flunkies trailing him out into the ripening midday. Sounds from the market rushed through the opened door. Isidoor ought to return to the poultry stall; Thomas would need help hauling the sacks of feed. They couldn’t linger any longer. But tomorrow would come, no matter what was drawn on any map, and Isidoor would wash his face, tamp down his curly hair, and ask Jo’s father if he could marry her. His heart quickened at his resolve, but Jo still didn’t look his way.

Before his wife reeled him back to his obligations, Ivo too observed Jo, puzzling over her fixation on the map. She had never granted the old one more than a glance. Her parents and siblings weren’t the sort to chew over these things. He left her in peace. Girls’ fancies were marshes too murky to ford.

At the altar formed by the map and the bar, Jo paled and blushed, hid her flooded eyes and sudden smiles, embraced the storm and then the calm. So. There was no definitive version of their country, of the world. There never would be. If the old map was fallible, a temporary reflection, then the reign of this newer one must be equally precarious. The truth, so fixed, so obvious, could change. It all depended on who drew the map. And really, anyone could draw a map, could sketch the world as it was true for them. A local shepherd’s survey of the land would differ from a foreign merchant’s, but neither would be false. They would simply see with different eyes, sculpted by different lives. Could the truth ever be reached then? Certain atlases might approach it, breathe down its neck. But even if the truth were somehow captured, fully contained in inked borders, one felled tree would change the face of their country into a different creature. And what of other maps, other guides, other truths? All those laws and facts, decreed by God and nature and men and mothers? What makes a lady, what makes a cake, what makes a life… Were they transient too?

“Jo, oughtn’t you get back to the market and help your mother?” Ivo’s wife called over an armful of cleaned linens.

One foot on the stairs, she cracked her neck and waited in vain for a reply. She was unsettled by the… lust, she’d have to call it, in Jo’s eyes. If her parents had any sense, they would get that girl a husband soon. Everyone knew pretty things were a danger to keep around too long. White flowers could be poisonous.

Soul still full of the map, Jo left the tavern and turned down the familiar street, its dips and curves long memorized by her feet. This road and this market, seemingly permanent fixtures in the landscape of her life, were really just one of many roads, one of many markets. In the burn of the late afternoon, the shops and stalls and houses took on the hollow echo and weightlessness of a traveling troupe’s set for a play. It was all manmade, wasn’t it? What was right. What was wrong. What was possible and impossible. The corset of certainties Jo wore – marriage was her next step, children were a woman’s greatest love, churchgoers went to heaven, cities were sinful, the sea was monstrous – loosened. She couldn’t think of what had prevented her from wriggling her fingers into the knots and undoing them before. Fear of not adhering to the world as mapped by someone else? Jo smiled. Maps could be redrawn.

At dawn, Jo’s mother would notice her absence but think little of it until a canvas bag and supplies were discovered to be missing from the pantry. Under a field of clouds yet to be ploughed by the sun, Ivo would be woken by caterwauling and bangs on the inn door. Jo’s red-faced father and inconsolable mother would thrust their distress onto Ivo’s broad chest, hoarsely damn his new map for bewitching and spiriting away their white flower, who had spent the night talking nonsense about walls not being walls and truths not being truths. They would push past Ivo, hearts like torches aimed at the map, but be brought up short at the bar, their bonfire of anger left flickering in the wind.

The new map would already be lying in a froth of paper on the floor. Ivo would feel the bright shreds as keenly as though it were his own flesh in pieces, and he would groan upon noticing a long peel of the old map, thought to be permanently wedded to the wall, uncoiling to the floor in a limp arc, a casualty in the attack on its successor.

END

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…

Edinburgh: Artful & Approachable

I didn’t mean to turn my trip to Edinburgh into an article. It just sort of happened? Read all about it in the August issue of the Singapore American Newspaper:

“Picturesque” is the ideal word for Edinburgh.

If the Gothic architecture and striking geography of Scotland’s capital aren’t enough to convince you, the homegrown arts scene should. Edinburgh is famous for its festivals, concerts and live acts. The annual Edinburgh International Festival features invitation-only performances in music, theater, opera and dance. However, the most well-known is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as it’s the world’s largest arts festival. Unlike the International Festival, anyone can perform almost any type of act. Last year, there were over 50,000 performances in everything from children’s shows to spoken word to cabaret, though the Fringe is best known for its robust comedy segments.

Similar to Melbourne, Edinburgh is very walkable, and anything that isn’t in walking distance can be reached via a robust network of trams and buses (almost all of which have free Wifi). The general atmosphere is laidback. The people are warm. The food scene is flush with local produce and craft alcohol. Both metropolises have been named Cities of Literature by UNESCO and this year an exchange program was launched to facilitate networking between their robust literary scenes. Even on a casual walk through Edinburgh, you’ll encounter statues and monuments to literary greats such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

In addition to being a haven for writers, Edinburgh is wealthy with galleries and museums, many of which are free. I highly recommend the National Gallery for two reasons. One, it features spectacular work by Renaissance masters, including Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. And two, by studying paintings from hundreds of years ago, it’s possible to see just how little the cityscape has changed over the past millennium. Modern-day Princes Street, one of the main thoroughfares, is instantly recognizable in Alexander Nasmyth’s painting from 1825. This is partly due to regulations that limit the height of newer buildings and partly due to the city’s topography.

The multi-leveled nature of Edinburgh means there are several prime vantage points from which to gaze out over the sprawl. Calton Hill is worth the climb, but Edinburgh Castle, of course, takes the cake. The stone fortress watches over everything from its perch on the aptly-named Castle Rock, as it has done since the 12th century. Boasting just under 1000 years of history, it routinely tops the list of Edinburgh’s must-see sites. It has two spectacular approaches. You can stroll through the verdant Princes Street Gardens and then languidly take a path up a grassy slope that’s populated with daffodils in spring.

Or you can start at the bottom of Old Town and meander up the Royal Mile, which begins at Holyrood Palace and follows the medieval streets directly to the castle gates. Give yourself plenty of time to make stops and detours, as this route passes St. Giles’ Cathedral, the National Museum of Scotland, Scottish Parliament, the University of Edinburgh as well as a plethora of notable restaurants and pubs. There are also numerous secret passages and small, winding stone alleys to explore. Some of them you may already be familiar with, as parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed here.

Like I said: picturesque.

 

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Hiraeth

Bamboo Telegraph, published by the American Women’s Association, featured my poem Hiraeth in the July/August 2018 issue:

Hiraeth

but on a future page, I write hiraeth,
letters straddled by blank lines,
storks in a lake sky white, black feet in the danger
of events waiting to encircle the definition

a homesickness for a home
you cannot return to,
or that never was

a casual elimination of past and future, the place
where I was born but never lived,
the towns
where I lived but wasn’t from,
the undiluted person I could have become,
the safely planted future I could have raised,
the past stitched into place with swift
dips of an easy needle

I have made a home in the homesickness,
in the hiraeth – a here
with its end
smudged long by fuzzed, unfamiliar reeds
and I have sowed it in my future, where
the person I do not know yet, the person I will be
will find it
and remember that
she can never return to me

 

Salvage

Bamboo Telegraph, published by the American Women’s Association, featured my poem Salvage in the May/June 2018 issue!

Salvage

The paper moon sleeps
in a notebook
above a massacre of pen caps
and mislaid chunks of words
which weren’t evacuated with
the mouths that, spit and teeth and tongue,
allowed them to live.
Only oddities remain,
staying, swearing, staring.
Survivors that have all their syllables
are snapped up by the harassed and indifferent
and taken to some poem,
some book, some brittle literature.
And when the slips of remainders, the
afterthoughts, the words we say we want
to take back
but will actually obliterate,
squirm through the hacked silence
in the dirt,
I get on my hands and knees
and salvage.

 

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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