31 August 2012

Emily of Emerald Hill and the Peranakan Museum, Singapore

Peranakan Museum in Singapore
Today I visited this unique museum in Singapore, dedicated to the Peranakan, or Chinese from the Malay peninsula. A unique contribution to Singapore's multicultural identity, where each component cultural heritage (Chinese, malay and Tamil) and its language is protected, while English is the cement common to all.

In the museum I could see an exhibition of Emily of Emerald Hill, a short play by Singaporean playright Stella Kon.

As she tells us in her blog, Emily of Emerald Hill is a one-woman play about a Nonya matriarch who dominates her family, yet in the end finds that she loses what she loves most. The play won the First Prize in the National Play-Writing Competition 1983. Since then it has been presented more than a hundred times, by eight different performers, in Singapore, Malaysia, Hawaii and Edinburgh. It has been translated into Chinese and Japanese and broadcast over Radio Iceland. A film version is under negotiation.

Emily is a short and passionate play that takes the reader inside the heart of a Peranakan family of the 1950s. Traditional Chinese values are intertwined with English habits that were common in the richer class of Singapore. The matriarch defers to her husband, but in the end it is she who calls the shots in the house. She is loving but also possessive. Servants are treated with dignity but firmness, children (especially sons) are spoiled and daughters-in-law are expected to be submissive. Wives are expected to tolerate their husbands' cheating. It is a materially comfortable life but also a straightjacket for the younger generation that wants to try it out on its own.

You can buy the book and other works by contacting Stella Kon at stelkon@singnet.com.sg

You can watch a trailer of the play here.

And another here.

30 August 2012

Dim Sum in Singapore

Marina Bay Sands, Din Tai Fung restaurant, probably among the best dim sum in the world.

27 August 2012

Books and films on Singapore

work in progress

Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore (2003), by James Warren, ***** A people's history of Singapore between 1880 and 1940. Highly readable.

Ah ku and Karayuki San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940 (1993), by James Francis Warren, ***** Fascinating social history through the eyes of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes iwho came to Singapore in search of fortune. Few found it.

25 August 2012

Breakfast and identity in Bali, Indonesia

I am about to have a delightful breakfast in the terrace of my hotel in Bali, which is adjacent to some fastidiously manicured rice terraces. The early morning sun shines on the water that fills the paddies. I have just taken a short walk around the terraces to photograph the reflections of the seedlings on the muddy water, and have returned to the table for a hearty Indonesian breakfast.

A waiter comes to my table, he has obviously been trained to have a personal approach to each guest, as he greets me warmly.

Waiter: Hello Mister Marco, so you are from Belgium?

Me: Hi, good morning, yes, well I live there but I am Italian.

W: Oh I see, so Belgium is near Italy?

M: Well kind of, it's a two-hour flight, Belgium is on the Atlantic coast in the North of Europe.

W: Oh I see, on the Atlantic, so is it near Canada?

M: No no, it's in Europe, between France and Germany.

W: Ah ok. I thought it was landlocked. I once flew over the Atlantic, I remember it's extremely deep. And the waves are huge! But France and Italy are the same right?

M: Not really, different countries, though we are all in Europe now: no borders, same money, most laws are the same.

W: So it is the same.

M: Ah well yes I suppose in a way it is.

W: And Belgium too?

M: Yes of course, Belgium too.

He may not know Belgium's exact position on the map, but he clearly knows about the Atlantic. How could he guess the depth of the ocean and size up the waves from an airliner is anyone's guess. But he understands Europe as well as any of us who live there.

The conversation is very useful for me: it drives the point home that I, really, have no homeland. My roots are weaker than those of the rice seedlings that bend in the light morning wind. Do I have an identity? Do I really need one? Do I care? Not really. I suppose I just have multiple identities, and it's too complicated to explain over breakfast.

Lesson learned: keep it simple when trying to explain where you come from.

23 August 2012

Tour and cooking course in Bali

We start for a walk to the village of Celuk Village for Fine silver making and studio. Obviously a touristy moment but interesting nonetheless.

We then proceed to the Batuan Village temple, a beautiful temple with amazing curving detail.

This is followed by a visit to one of many wood carving villages, where I spot a beautiful mask that is now guarding against evil spirits by the door of my bedroom.

Finally, a short walk around the monkey forest of Ubud completes the tour. Actually, the best part is yet to come, as in the late afternoon and evening I have booked a cooking class. As I always do when the opportunity presents itself when I travel, here too I take another cooking class of Balinese cuisine. I decide, among many options, for the half-day Lobong cooking course.

There are four ladies (from Australia, India and Lebanon) joining me for this class. We start with some explanations of the traditional Bali house structure and an introduction of real Balinese Daily Life. The Lobong are a well to do family and their house compound is impressive.

We then go for a walk in the surrounding forest to study and pick several herbs and spices that will be used in the cooking class. It's a pleasant descent into the valley and then a climb up to the house again. Along the way we stop at an ample courtyard where several ladies are busy preparing food: chopping, slicing, mixing. Very friendly and photogenic!

We then plunge in the lush forest and meet several farmers who are also there to gather precious ingredients for their kitchens. In about one hour we are back to the Lobong house and it's time to get to work!

We spend the next couple of hours cooking Balinese food under the careful supervision of the chef.

Then it's time to eat the product of our hard labor! Before that, however, we had to make the traditional offering to the ancestors. So the mother of the chef comes along, takes a sample of the food we had prepared and walks to the family altar to make an offering. Only then we are allowed to the table. It was all quite good.

20 August 2012

The Terunyan (or Trunyan) of Bali, Indonesia

The Terunyan cemetery

A day trip from Ubud to a rather atypical destination: the village of the Terunyan (or Trunyan) a "Balai Aga" (aborigenal people of Bali). Their name comes from Taru (tree) and menyan (fragrance) and I will return to the importance of this fragrance in a moment. These people date way back to before Hindus came to Bali, where they now constitute over 90% of the population, an anomaly in Indonesia which is mostly muslim.

As I read from a local information board (I slightly adapted the English):

The Terunyan village is situated at the foot of Mount Abang, in remote and isolated locations on the eastern coast of the Batur lake. The Terunyan society calls the community of Bali "Aga" (native). In Terunyan there is a temple called Pura Pancering Jagat. In addition, in the village, the houses still reflect a traditional home. Near this villave there ia a cemetery that can only be reached by boat via the lake.

Unlike other Balinese cultures, these people do not cremate their dead. The bodies of the deceased are just laid on the ground within fenced "ancak saji" (woven bamboo). Women are generally not allowed to attend the ceremonial processions that accompany the dead to their final resting place. (Actually it is not quite "final" as I will elaborate below.) This is because of a belief that if women were allowed to partake of funeral processions this would produce a curse for the whole village.

Interestingly, these bodies do not smell after decomposition begins. This is believed to be the consequence of the Menyan Taru trees (taru = trees, menyan = fragrant) that grow just next to the graves.

A unique experience, if a quiet and sober one. Not rally an "attraction of Bali", which is how Tripadvisor classifies it. Some contributors to this most useful website compared how much time was needed to visit Tetunyan and trip prices to rafting or market browsing.

There are actually three cemeteries. The first is for children. It is called the Semà (cemetery) Muda (youth). The second one is the Semà Bantasi and it is for those who die in accidents or because of illness.

The third one, which we visited, is called the Semà Wayah (old people) and it  is for people who were married and die of natural old age. Only eleven people are buried there at any one time. When additional elderly people die, the ones who were placed there first are moved to an adjacent site and their skulls and bones are lined up.

As for the trees, I could indeed small a fragrance, but won't attempt to analyze what effect this can have on the preservation of the cadavers. The legend has it that in the old days the elderly were asked what to do with these trees, whose smell was so strong that it made people sneeze all the time. They advised villagers to plant the trees next to the dead so that the stench from decomposition would be balanced with the fragrance.

Our local guide Agung also relates another legend according to which the stench of the dead is sucked in by a network of natural tunnels under the cemetery.

Great book about Bali:

19 August 2012

Tour of Bali, Indonesia

Fighting cocks in their cages
At 9 am we drove by a school of judo for small children. Along the road I saw people holding roosters in cages. They are fighting roosters, and although the practice is banned it remains very popular.

Lots of young people in the streets were drinking Arak (a liquor based on distilled coconut).

All over Bali, following an ancient tradition, each family house has a small temple to the gods and another to the ancestors. I will be lucky to witness an offering in a real Balinese family on another day of this trip. Each village has three temples: one to Brahma, one to Shiva and one to Vishnu.

Bali is an anomaly in Indonesia as the great majority of its population is Hindu, with only a few Muslims and Christians. This morning we set off to visit Besakih temple complex, perhaps the most important in the island. It is a huge structure on the slopes of the Gunung Agung mountain. It is a grand mixture of 20+ temples, masses of pilgrims, scores of tourists and rows of merchants who peddle anything either group would buy. A few ladies sit on the sidewalks and sell fresh and dried fruits.

As we drive around the island I note that there seems to be a lot of economic activity going on, the vibrant tourist industry of course but also construction and trade. My guide Mully tells me that the average wage for a local worker is about 80.000 Rupies (about 6 Euro at today's rate) but Javanese workers will do the job for 70.000, hence the immigration of low skilled labor from Java. This is useful of course but it also creates problems. For one thing Javanese are Muslim, so there is a huge contrast with the local Hindus. Also, they are disproportionately responsible for crimes such as theft, especially when they lose their jobs. Lots of riots as young Balinese don't want to work in the rice fields or construction but at the same time resent the influx of Javanese workers who take up these jobs. Same story as we are used to experience in Europe...

In the afternoon Luca and I do a couple of hours of white water rafting. Too bad there is no time to do more, it would be definitely worthwhile!

Later in the afternoon we visited the Royal Court house.

In the evening I ate at a local night market in Gianyar. Suckling pig is the paramount specialty of Bali, and it is not be missed for any reason!

Night market satay

15 August 2012

Giorgio Perlasca (1910-1992): history, books, films.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Giorgio Perlasca. See his website in Italian. It is surprising to me that someone who, alone, has done so much for so many should still be relatively unknown, especially outside of Italy and perhaps Israel. Perlasca saved over five thousand Jews, far more that Schindler did with his "list" of Hollywood fame.

Anche in Italia indifferenza per la sua morte, con un funerale disertato dalle maggiori autorità politiche, anche locali. Un altro caso di come il nostro paese trascura i suoi eroi. Quelli veri, non quelli costruiti in televisione e in certi libri di storia.

Puoi comprare il box con due DVD in italiano qui

Unfortunately this film is not available in English.

Il film è tratto da materiale contenuto in questo libro:

Altri libri su Giorgio Perlasca sono disponibili qui.

08 August 2012

Arrival in Bali, Indonesia

Uneventful flight to Bali over a necklace of Indonesian islands.

The car that is supposed to be waiting for us is not there and after a few sms Luca and I decide to rent a taxi to go to our hotel in Sanur. We'll have to overnight here before catching our domestic flight to Komodo tomorrow.

Traffic out of the airport in Denpasar is horrific. We drive bumper to bumper for almost two hours amidst unbearable pollution. A little man pulling a huge cart easily overtakes us. He is carrying I don't know how many hundreds of kilos of everything. Reminds me of rickshaw pullers of another time.

Before dinner we take a walk along the beach. Because of the tides, swimming depth can be very very far from the shore. I can't really see why one would come to Bali for its beaches, though there are plenty other reasons to. In fact, I was initially concerned this would be a much too commercialized destination. However, as I will see in the course of my visit after our diving cruise, it is not necessarily so as long as one is ready to move out of the beaten path.

The main street of Sanur is rather uninteresting: shops overflowing with junk for tourists and restaurants. We decide to dine at the Savana, attracted by the lobster on display. There are very few patrons. Too few perhaps. After they take our orders the staff, slowly, starts the charcoals to cook the lobster. It takes more than two hours before the food is on our plates! Eventually they apologize and offer a 20% discount on the bill. Oh well! Lobster was very good though.

07 August 2012

Singapore city tour: Chinatown, Maxwell food center.

We wake up at dawn because of our jet lag, and out of our hotel window we can admire the silhouette of the iconic Marina bay Sands (MBS). After a sumptuous breakfast, we proceed to a full day tour of Singapore with Luca and our local guide.

Singapore welcomes us with a sunny and hot day. I never have enough of this wonderful city state, a mixture of tradition and modernity that blends many cultures into a proud and vibrant society. The Chinese majority (about three quarters of the population) coexists with the Indian (Tamil) and Malay minorities and the many Western expats.

About two hundred Jewish families are known to live here, but I am told they mostly keep to themselves. It is possible to visit mosques, churches, Hindu and Buddhist temples, but our guide says it is not easy to visit the two synagogues for non Jews.

Streets are calm and clean, public transport works well and everything seems to be user friendly. The country is not really a full democracy, and limited dissent is tolerated, just, alive, especially online. Economically, the former British colony began to develop as a freeport, taking advantage of its strategic position. It then diversified into manufacturing, oil refining, finance and more recently into tourism. Tourists are also attracted by the possibility of gambling.

Politically, Singapore is tightly connected with the West and especially with the US, which keeps a discrete military presence on the island. Military cooperation with Israel is quite developed as well.

The Chinatown underground market is pulsating with trade and (for me) unusual foods, like fish bellies and pork stomach. There is ample opportunity to taste different delicacies as we work our way along the neon lit alleys of the market.. A friendly seller of more familiar bananas poses for me without a problem. In one cafè I try a drink of chestnut juice, barley and lime.

Live frogs are for sale along with many different kinds of meat and fish.

At the Maxwell food court Chinese, Indian and Malay food offer an endless wource of enjoyment for the adventurous. Here you sit casually at big round tables that you share with whoever happens to be there. You buy your food and drinks and eat at your pace. Many ladies scurry around cleaning up after you are done, and other ladies patrol the alleys selling paper tissue.

Actually you don't really have to be so adventurous. Just curious. Unlike a group of Italians whom I met. The two guys were looking around and ready to plunge into some chicken masala or pork liver, but the two ladies looked horrified and asked their men to leave and go look for some more readily recognizable food. Oh well, their choice. And their loss. We stayed and tried different stuff, including "century old egg", a darkened hard boiled egg that is kept underground for some months before being offered for consumption. Different from what we are used to, but good.
A very special egg

Of course, western symbols like McDonald's are everywhere to testify the cosmopolitan nature of this country.

Dinner at an Indian restaurant in the Esplanade. Wendy, a Chinese friend from Hong Kong, tells me how she is really worried about how the central government is slowly eroding HK's unique nature to make it conform with the mainland. In theory HK is autonomous until 2047 (fifty years after the end of British rule) but in practice she fears it might be amalgamated into the Communist system before that. On the other hand, China is changing fast as well, and it might well be that in 2047 the mainland will look more like HK today

06 August 2012

Back to Singapore

My first flight on the huge A-380, the biggest airliner in the world. It's Lufthansa this time, they had a special deal that was impossible to turn down.

As we approach Singapore the staff handed me the immigration form. Name, date of birth etc... and then a dry statement in capital letters:




OK could hardly be clearer than that. Singapore had a long history of opium smoking, dating back to the XIX century when the British actually encouraged it. Opium sapped the energy of society and memories last a long time in Chinese culture, so it is not surprising that there is such a determination to stamp it out today. Of course I keep reading that drugs are readily available in Singapore, so I am not sure about just how strong a deterrent the death penalty really is in Singapore.

Changi Airport, I gave it an "excellent"
At the airport (one of the best in the world, though I prefer Hong Kong's) Luca and I are welcomed by a plethora of shops, restaurants and super clean toilets, in which the management takes great pride. By the time we are processed through customs our luggage is waiting for us on the carousels and we are off to a twenty-minute taxi ride to the hotel. The road is lined by gardens full of flowers, trees, lawns, and not one advertisement board. With very few exceptions, these are banned in Singapore, which is rather funny as this is one of the biggest shopping capitals of the world.

In the evening Luca and I join a couple of friends for a seafood dinner at the one of the many restaurants along the famed Singapore East Coast. I want to try shark fin soup. Being a conscientious diver I am absolutely against the horrible slaughter of sharks that is perpetrated each year to privide for this fare, but let me try once. It is really nothing special, I can't understand what's the big deal about it, and I won't ever have it again.

You can watch a slideshow of my trip to Singapore here