24 March 2008

Arts: Harry Connick, Jr.

Singapore is not New York or London, but it has a decent arts scene. I wrote last year about the Singapore Arts Festival, which featured an eclectic mix of artists from around the world. This month, Singapore hosted its Mosaic Music Festival, a ten-day run of shows that opened with one of my favorite artists: Harry Connick, Jr.

I had never seen Connick in concert, so I jumped at the chance. He played the Esplanade Theatre, which is housed in the "bug eyes" structure at the mouth of the Singapore River. We had balcony seats, with good sight lines to Harry and his 11 piece band. He entitled the tour, "My New Orleans Tour", and it was a tribute to his home city. He played all kinds of songs, from upbeat classics to soulful, jazzy numbers that would have been at home in a smoky little bar just off Bourbon Street. These were peppered by solos from his talented band mates, as well as plenty of spotlight time for Harry on the piano.

Connick is immensely talented. In addition to his excellent work on the ivories, he often took centre stage to sing and dance. One number had him dancing with his friend, Lucien Barbarin, an excellent trombonist and jazz singer, that included a Ricky Martin-type booty shake across the stage. For a guy my age, Harry is in quite good shape!

On top of everything, he is hilarious. He played the crowd like a comedian, picking out people in the audience and even coming out in the crowd to get his picture taken with one fan. This after he had read the man's name, phone number, and email address from off his business card!

All in all, it was a fantastic performance. If you ever have a chance to see him live, GO! His trip in Singapore was part of a larger Asian and Australian tour, but I think his stay in Singapore, while brief, proved far more enjoyable than that in his next venue. In Shanghai, where he flew the next day, he inadvertently submitted an old song list to the authorities there, who closely monitor all Western performances. Apparently, they were in no mood to grant exceptions (the Icelandic artist Bjork just a few days earlier had ended her concert with a cry of "Free Tibet", which led to the increased scrutiny of foreign artists). So, he was forced to follow that song list, which meant that most of the time he played solo while his band sat silently on stage. I suppose that in China, the old adage applies: the song remains the same.

22 March 2008

Travel: Ko Samui

Thailand's third largest island, Ko Samui (alternatively, Koh Samui), is a sparkling gem in the Gulf of Thailand, just off the sliver of mainland resting between Myanmar and Malaysia. I was fortunate to travel there on business, and I stayed the weekend to see the island. Bangkok Airways, "Asia's Boutique Airline" (as it calls itself), offers the only non-stop service from Singapore, and the flight is just over an hour and a half. Upon arrival, however, you feel as if you could not be farther away from the urban environment of Singapore. The airport is entirely out of doors - you walk off the plane, across the tarmac to the open air arrival area, with Customs & Immigration, baggage claim, waiting and transport pick-up areas. The ride in the hotel van takes you through back streets and what appear to be dark alleys, and all of a sudden you pull onto a heavily trafficked commercial street, full of restaurants, bars, retail, and tourists.

I stayed in Chaweng, on the east coast of the island. It boasts (according to the guidebooks) of the most beautiful beaches on the island, and it did not disappoint. The island is also home to beautiful mountains and jungle, which in some areas rise directly up from the beaches. We experienced this first-hand with a round of golf at Santiburi, a picturesque course with extreme elevation changes. The course itself was a bit tricked-up, but the views were worth it. The only person who did not enjoy was my caddy, who spent a good number of the holes looking for my drives in jungle and ravine. Amazingly, she found nearly every one!

At the end of the conference, I stayed on and welcomed a friend from Singapore for the weekend. While the beaches were calling, we decided to tour the island and hired a van to drive us all over the place. As you go south from Chaweng, the road climbs up to some very nice vistas and sea views. Just as quickly, it descends back to sea level, to Hin Ta and Hin Yai, the Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks, two formations that remarkably resemble the male and female privates. As you can imagine, this attracts all kinds of tourists. I will leave it to you to find pictures (this is a family blog!). Coincidentally, I just read an article on the "fairy chimneys" of Turkey, which appear to be geological cousins, at least to Hin Ta!

Next, we went off the beaten path to check out a small Muslim fishing village on the southeastern portion of the island. This simple village is quite poor, and life is lived like it has been for years: small fishing boats are moored in the shallow water, with hundreds of fish from the day's catch drying in the sun, while the residents go about their daily routines, trying to stay out of the sun. The village is dominated by a mosque. As we were looking at it, we were approached by a man who told us of the needs of the community in funding the construction of the site. Relentless in his explanation (he essentially read from the board on the outer wall appealing for donations), he successfully procured twenty baht from me. It is not much, but now I am a real estate owner in Thailand, as well as Dallas. We took a quick walk around, but I felt as if we were infringing on someone's home; this was not a tourist site.

So, we headed back out to visit such sites, stopping next at the Wat Khunaram, home to the Mummified Monk. Luong Por Ruam was a wealthy resident who converted to Buddhism and gave up his earthly possession. He became an honored spiritual leader in Ko Samui, with legendary abilities. He reportedly even foretold the time of his death, which occurred in 1973. Normally, Buddhists are cremated, but he told his family to bury him sitting up. Before burial, his followers noticed that his body was not decaying. Believing this to be a miracle, they put his mummified remains on display, and they remain so today. He actually looks pretty good for a mummy! Pretty hip, too, in a pair of sunglasses.

Next, we experienced the biggest tourist rip-off on the island: elephant trekking. The interior of the island features a couple of waterfalls, and we thought we could ride an elephant to see them. Because of a lack of water, only one waterfall was actually worth seeing, and it was an hour ride on the back of the pachyderm. I misunderstood the handlers, however, and I thought we could do it. So, we hopped on our elephant and headed out. If you have ridden a horse, and you remember the first time when the saddle was swaying back and forth and you were terrified you were going to fall off - well, it was like that. Only the saddle was a bench big enough for two, and you were twice as high off the ground, and the elephant weighs three times as much as a horse. To make matters worse, our elephant did not want to follow the path at first. He lunged to the left, into some trees, and began to eat. His handler (who sits on his neck - we sit on the back) took his prod - a large hook - and jabbed it below the elephant's left ear to get him to go back right. Well, the creature wasn't pleased, and he let out a huge bellow. I imagined him rearing on his hind legs, which would have meant curtains for us! But, the handler got the beast back on the trail, and we were off. We followed several other elephants on what turned out to be a 30-minute circular route around a primitive zoo, never completely out of sight of our point of departure. I could have run the distance in less than two minutes. All in all, I wasn't displeased to get off the animal. Between the ride and the zoo, it really is sort of sad, and I think that was my first and last ride on an elephant.

We stopped in the main town of Nathon (a few blocks of restaurants, a post office, and administrative offices) for lunch (including a cup of Tom Yum soup, a yummy staple for me in Thailand). It was a good stop, as I ran into a colleague who has a house on the island, and she suggested a good place for dinner (more later). Then, to round out our tour, we were off to the Big Buddha. This statue of the sitting Buddha - 15 metres tall - sits on a small island just off the northeastern tip of Ko Samui. While surrounded by typical tourist shops, the statue and surrounding wat are quite peaceful, and it is a nice stop. The staircase leading up to the Buddha is a representation of the Naga, the legendary snake that was protector to the Buddha. I could have skipped the shops (one that makes strange, full-size statues of the Alien, Predator, and Terminator out of all kinds of metal - nails, bolts, rebar, you name it; this was quite bizarre, as I can't imagine who would buy these things!), but it was worth seeing the statue.

We were wrecked, so we went to the hotel to rest before our dinner. My colleague recommended Zazen, a nice restaurant set in a leafy resort on Bo Phut on the north end of the island. This was perfect, with a view out to the sea, soft breezes, and a great menu. I could have spent hours there, but we wanted to get an early start on the next day.

I wanted to see the sunrise on our eastern-facing beach, so we were up at 5.30 and down to the beach just a few minutes later. And the sun never came up. It was gray and overcast all day, so all we saw was a gradual lightening of a drab sky. I suppose a refreshing dip made up for some of the disappointment, but I will consult the forecast the next time. For the rest of our stay, we braved a steady and at times heavy rain to do some shopping - you can't get away without a trinket or two! Actually, my favorite shop there is the Jim Thompson store, with its famous silks. This company, headquartered in Bangkok, has stores in Singapore, but the Thailand shops seem so much more authentic.

As usual, we arrived at the airport two hours in advance of our international flight. Remember, the airport is outdoors. There was an overcrowded (but very heavily air-conditioned!) coffee shop, but we opted for the departures lounge, a sitting area under a thatched roof. It was enough to keep the heavy rain off of us, and the area was actually a nice, if crowded, place to wait for our flight back to reality.

One last thing - Thailand is a peaceful and polite country. Ninety percent of its citizens are Buddhist, and I have found it very pleasant to visit on the three occasions I have done so. Thais greet others by folding their hands together and bowing politely, and this practice is pervasive throughout the country. So much so that I even saw representations of the Michelin Man and Ronald McDonald doing so.

13 March 2008

Travel: CNY in HK, Part 2

Saturday morning brought the first hint of sun during our stay, as well as the feeling that the city would start returning to normal. Chinese New Year celebrations last 15 days, with a different activity for each day, but the first two are the most important. Shops and restaurants previously closed were now open, and the city was back to its normal hectic self.

We wanted to get away from the city and visit Stanley, a beach area and market on the southeast end of the island, so we headed to Central terminal and caught a double decker bus (just in time - we bypassed a large group that was debating whether to board; as soon as we sat down, the bus left). The ride takes you out east through the city, then up into the hills and down to the seaside area. The city portion was great - we passed right by Happy Valley, the horse racing park nestled in Causeway Bay. It features turf racing, and it looks like a massive oasis of green in a concrete and steel jungle. Soon after, the bus passes through a tunnel, which serves as a transition from urban to rural. Hong Kong can be a crowded, dirty, stressful city, but you only have to go a few miles east or west and find green spaces, hiking trails, and more laid back communities. You see this on the train to the airport, as well as on the bus rides out east.

The road leading to Stanley is narrow and winding, steadily climbing up the hills. That is, until it reaches the peak, where it becomes narrow and winding, steadily leading down to the sea. And we are in a double decker bus with a driver who must think he is in a sports car. It is the kind of ride where you just have to relax and not pay too much attention. We actually rode in the front seats on the top deck coming back. It's better than a theme park ride!

Originally a fishing village, Stanley was the largest settlement on Hong Kong Island before the arrival of the British. A couple of vestiges of British rule (complete with reminders of their departure) remain: the old police station (used by the Japanese during their brutal occupation of the city in World War II) and the old fort (now occupied by the Chinese People's Liberation Army). The appeal of Stanley, however, is its relaxed pace, large market with all kinds of goods, and seaside restaurants.

We wandered through the market and then over to the seafront, where we found King Ludwig's Beerhall and German Restaurant. This is a recreation of a Bavarian beerhall, run by a very energetic Chinese man. It was hilarious! To feed the never-ending flow of tour visitors, chefs on the outside deck constantly cooked all kinds of German sausage you could think of (in woks), which they combined with Italian and Chinese dishes. We did not eat, but the beer was cold and refreshing. Just like in Germany.

We even ran into a Chinese god outside the beerhall! (See above)

After an exciting ride back, we jumped off the bus at the convenient Wan Chai stop, a couple of blocks (actually, elevated walkways) from our hotel, and then we headed back to Kowloon to check out the Temple Street Night Market.

The market was back in business. The stalls and restaurants silent only two days before were a hive of activity on Saturday night. We didn't buy anything (few, if any, of the goods are authentic), but instead went in search of a place to eat. Every place was packed with locals and tourists alike, but we finally found a seat at a large outdoor restaurant. After a long wait for our food and a conversation with a couple from Oregon, we finally ate our delicious crispy chicken, roasted duck, and vegetables.

After, it was a trip to Lan Kwai Fong for a taste of expat Hong Kong. I have written about this area before, which reminds me of San Francisco, its buildings perched on steep, narrow streets. As usual, it was full of life on a Saturday night, but we weren't.

My flight on Sunday gave me just enough time to have breakfast at a great little cafe called the Flying Pan. I wish I could find such a western-style breakfast place in Singapore. After that, it was time to head to the airport and return to real life. As a 40 year old.

09 March 2008

Travel: Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

Stephen and I arrived in Hong Kong the night before the start of the Lunar New Year celebration. The weather was perfect - cold and blustery. I finally had my winter here in Asia. We stayed right by the harbourfront in Wan Chai, a good central location close to the MTR and with a view of Kowloon. A quick tour of the area gave us a sense of the celebrations to come - the buildings were lit up like Christmas in the States, with massive displays of bright lights and animations to welcome the Year of the Rat.

Kung Hei Fat Choy! That is how the Cantonese say Happy New Year. (In Singapore, where Mandarin is spoken, it is Gong Xi Fa Cai.)

We headed out on February 7 - the first day of the new year - to check out the escalators. It was pretty quiet, as few shops were open, but that meant fewer crowds. We walked around the mid-levels for a good part of the morning and early afternoon, and then we headed to the ferry pier, as we were to try our luck at the casinos in Macau.

Talk about crowded. The ferry terminal was packed, both in Hong Kong and in Macau. It took us 30 minutes to get through immigration in Macau, and the line for the shuttle bus to the Venetian was at least another 30 minutes. So, we jumped in a cab for the ride across the causeway.

The Venetian was even more crowded than the ferry terminal! Fortunately, most of the visitors were there to take in the sights, and we were able to find plenty of room at the tables. The Police were playing the casino's arena that night - they had been in Singapore three nights earlier - but we skipped the show. After a run at the tables in the Venetian, we headed to the Wynn (retracing my steps from my October visit). This was a more laid-back atmosphere, not nearly as crowded. We didn't say long, however, as we had wisely booked our return ticket to guarantee we would leave at a reasonable hour. And so after the short ferry, we were back in Hong Kong.

Day Two of the new year was my 40th birthday. We headed across the harbour to Kowloon to explore. It was very quiet out, as again few shops were open. We wandered around the street markets, and checked out the Tin Hau Temple (Tin Hau is the Taoist goddess of the sea), but my main focus was on food. I wanted to try a Temple Street chicken claypot restaurant featured on Anthony Bourdain's show, but we couldn't locate it (it is called Four Seasons, but I suspect the signboard is in Cantonese, so I wouldn't know it if I saw it; regardless, very little was open). We ended up eating at a very local noodle shop, ordering off one of the few English menus on the premises. I love this type of local eatery - it is one of the things I really like about Singapore, as well. It just seems so genuine. And the food is really good.

We continued to wander through the deserted stalls of Temple Street, happening upon a traditional Lion Dance along the way, heading to our ultimate destination of the harbourfront. I wanted to visit two upscale hotels, the Peninsula with its fleet of green Rolls Royces, and the Intercontinental, which features a stunning view of Hong Kong Island from across the harbour.

The Peninsula plays a role in two Bond movies, so I was eager to check it out. So were several hundred other tourists, as well! There was quite a queue for the high tea service in the lobby (with its Tiffany china teacups), so we opted for The Bar, a quiet spot one floor up, where we had the full attention of the staff (being the only patrons at the time). It was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city, and I could have stayed for hours.

But, we had other plans, and we wanted to get back to the island side before the crowds overwhelmed us and the MTR. I wanted to find the Bottoms Up club, where Scaramanga made his first kill in The Man With the Golden Gun. It used to be just around the corner from the Peninsula, and we found the location. Little did we know, however, that it had moved within the past few years to Wan Chai, where we were staying, so we never found it.

Undaunted, we headed to the Intercontinental's Lobby Bar. They were getting ready for the fireworks show, which is the highlight of the second day of the new year, so we only had a few minutes. But, the visit was well worth it - the view was amazing. The hotel sits right on the water, with a clear view of the impressive skyline of Hong Kong Island. It would have been a spectacular location for viewing the fireworks.

We decided to see the show from our own hotel, however. It was pretty easy getting back to the island side, and we found a place in the lobby bar that gave us a pretty good view of the harbour (the view is obstructed by the Convention and Exhibition Centre), as well as the constant wave of people walking to the harbourfront for the fireworks. An estimated 400,000 people viewed the show on both sides of the harbour. The temperature had been pleasant during the day, but after sunset, it was pretty chilly. Considering the size of the crowd, as well, I was glad to not be outside.

The fireworks were incredible. I was spoiled by the show in Sydney during the western new year, but these were even better. The show was nearly 10 minutes longer, and it was a constant barrage of light and sound. We found out later that we could only see about a quarter of the total show from our vantage point, but it was still great! I did not get any pictures of the show, but here is one I found on the web. Photo courtesy of Kayson Lau.

Not a bad way to spend my 40th birthday.

03 March 2008

A Visitor in Singapore

It is always a pleasure when I entertain overseas visitors. Combine it with a big event (or several), and the experience just gets better. So, I was excited when Stephen Corley made the trip over for a few days in Singapore before going to Hong Kong to help ring in my 40th birthday.

The week of his visit began with the Super Bowl and ended with Chinese New Year. The second day of Chinese New Year was my birthday, and I thought it was nice that a billion people would help me celebrate the milestone.

Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday for the Chinese, and the excitement was evident across the Singapore in the days leading up to it. Stephen arrived early on Sunday before, and we wasted little time in diving into the mix by heading to Chinatown. While the rainy season is said to end in January, a cloudburst had watered down the streets early that Sunday. But, as it had stopped, I confidently stated that we could leave our umbrellas behind: “It only rains once a day in Singapore.” By the time we reached our bus stop at the entrance of Chinatown, however, the skies had once again opened. We ducked through the five foot ways that line the streets of Chinatown, finally finding shelter on Food Street. After a refreshment and some dim sum to tide us over, we enjoyed the pre-holiday hustle and bustle. It is reminiscent of Christmas in the States: gifts are bought, lights are strung,and red and gold decorations are hung as far as the eye can see. It really is an exciting time.

The next morning was Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. It was 6.45 when we boarded the bus to take us to Clarke Quay, where we would join the American Chamber of Commerce in watching the game. I won’t rehash the disappointment that was the game; suffice it to say that it was a very bad way for me to start my week. But, with the game being over by 11.00, we had most of the day ahead of us, for me to blow off steam.

Many years ago, Stephen’s grandparents invited their friends from around the world to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in Singapore, at the Raffles Hotel. So, it only made sense that we drop by to visit the site of the celebration. The Long Bar proved to be a nice place to while away an hour or so on a quiet Monday. And from there, it is a short hop to the Kampong Glam for a taste of the Muslim side of Singapore. We followed that up on Tuesday with a day of real local food - laksa for lunch and chilli crab for dinner. All in all, a good stay in Singapore for Stephen, and a nice opportunity for me to revisit some old and discover some new favorites.

But, as much as I enjoyed his visit, the main event was to come - a journey to one of my favorite cities in the world, Hong Kong.