Tuesday, 31 July 2018

PLA Veterans' Grumbles get Louder

The PLA celebrates its 91st anniversary tomorrow, but not everyone is happy

The People's Liberation Army or PLA has a lot of veterans, about 57 million people.

They are the latest group of people to grumble about their (lack of) benefits and aren't very happy.

The government is so worried they will divert attention from the 91st anniversary of the founding of China's military tomorrow that vice-minister Fang Yongxiang gave a press conference saying now was not the time to voice grievances about welfare rights.

Fang Yongxiang warns veterans not to protest tomorrow
"We oppose the use of extreme moves to petition, and the staging of mass gatherings," he said. "We hope every veteran can respect the law and not threaten the stability of our society because of an impulse.

"We hope that everyone can report their problems in a rational and peaceful way... and prevent radical words... and avoid being used by people with ulterior motives."

In recent months, former servicemen and women have staged numerous rallies calling for better welfare rights. Some protestors have claimed they were assaulted by groups of thugs hired by officials.

There was also a five-day rally in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province in June, where some protestors said the event ended when armed police were sent to disperse the crowd. A military source close to the provincial government said "more than 10 officials" involved in the rally were punished for their handling of the event.

He also said authorities in other parts of the country had increased their monitoring of veterans on the approach to the military's anniversary on Wednesday, August 1.

"Governments in other provinces and cities have been on high alert to prevent any similar protests from being organized," the person, who requested anonymity, said.

"To prevent any possible petitioning, household registration authorities have started calling [at people's homes] and updating the information they have about veterans, to make sure they know their whereabouts."

Veterans have held several protests in recent months
Sounds very familiar to how political dissidents are tracked...

Last week hundreds of people staged protests outside veterans' affairs offices in Shandong, Hebei and Jiangsu provinces. In Jinan, Shandong, police officers were dispatched to block exits at the city's railway station to prevent more people from joining the protest.

Gou Zhengguo is a former soldier who fought in the Vietnam war and now lives in Hunan province. He said many veterans were told they could gather to air their grievances, but not in public places or in large numbers -- probably meaning no larger than three people.

"Some local authorities think that the civil rights movement by veterans, who only want better retirement benefits, is becoming more complicated and being used [as a front] by hostile forces from overseas," he said.

Groan. That argument again?

Who are these "hostile forces" that always conveniently pop up to supposedly disrupt things?

Perhaps the government should buckle down and sort out the veterans' grievances?

Veterans protesting in Beijing last year
Zeng Zhiping, a military law professor at Nanchang Institute of Technology in Jiangxi province criticized the authorities for being more concerned with breaking up protests than finding solutions to the veterans' problems.

"It's such a stupid and short-sighted move to highlight how much social unrest the authorities have successfully tackled," he said.

"This kind of approach may be a credit on local officials' lists of political achievements, but it will stir up more conflict between veterans and local authorities, and sow the seed for more trouble."

Soldiers do not earn much money in the military, and when they leave, they haven't amassed much in terms of savings which leaves these veterans very unhappy after what they thought was an honourable job.

The Ministry of Veterans' Affairs opened in April, meant to tackle their grievances; at Tuesday's press conference, they announced measures to help 120,000 ex-servicemen and women find new jobs and improve the welfare packages of 10,000 retirees and disabled former soldiers.

These initiatives seem like a drop in the bucket to help the 57 million veterans who have served the country. Surely money used to quell protests would be better used to give veterans what they want?

Monday, 30 July 2018

Is Freedom of Speech in Hong Kong Eroding?

Last weekend a few hundred people marched for freedom of expression
A former lawmaker has warned that if the police go ahead and ban the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, it will be a major setback for freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee questions how speaking to the media and hosting street booths constitute an "imminent threat" to national security, as police suggested last month.

The party, co-founded by Andy Chan Ho-tin, is fighting back, demanding to know whether there was any communication between the Security Bureau and the police before sending the letter to the party in which it gave the deadline of August 7 to explain to the security minister why it should not be banned. Along with the demand was 800 pages of documents and transcripts of Chan's speeches.

Margaret Ng says the HKNP has done nothing wrong
That's a lot of material considering the party has only been around for two years and isn't very active.

As a result the HKNP is trying to find out if the government originally ordered the force to study the option of a ban.

The bureau is looking into legal advice... which means it's getting very complicated...

The HKNP is also asking the police to hand over all of its surveillance records on Chan, audio and video, and the police says it is following up on the request.

Ng says the party hasn't done anything to stir up national security concerns.

"All of the [actions] police were arguing about were talking, giving interviews, handing out leaflets. All of these fall under freedom of speech, assembly, expression and association. I can't see how these actions have threatened national security throughout the 800 pages," said Ng. "This is a matter of common sense. No one could possibly think these would result in an imminent threat."

The authorities give the HKNP until August 7 to justify itself
She also adds the government is using similar tactics to the central government in cracking down on peaceful dissidents.

Ng cited the example of how late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was found guilty of subversion and jailed for nearly nine years for advocating constitutional reform in China.

"Maybe Liu was more articulate in his theory, but all he and Chan did was talk. The city's government has now used the same tactics from the mainland to curb freedom of expression in Hong Kong," said Ng, a member of the Civic Party.

She has represented the legal sector in the Legislative Council for 18 years until 2012, and has been fighting for democracy and human rights. Ng added even the colonial government didn't resort to banning groups on the grounds of what they advocated.

"We now have even less freedom of speech and association than under the [city's former] colonial government. I think it's a dead shame and sends a very bad message to the world," she said. "If Chan continues to speak in an individual capacity, then there is no other way to control him -- so then what is the point of banning the HKNP?"

Liu Xiaobo also only talked about ideas and was jailed
Even if the power for police to ban a group had long existed in the Societies Ordinance, it did not mean the government had to use it," she added.

An example she gave was Britain's Treason Felony Act of 1848, that makes it a criminal offence, punishable by life imprisonment, for people to advocate the abolition of the monarchy, even by peaceful means. But the act has not been used in Britain since 1883.

Last Saturday only a few hundred people came out to protest the heavy-handed approach towards the HKNP, probably due to the public's lack of interest in the pro-independence group that seems amateur.

But Ng says this is not the point -- while she and other pan-democrats may not agree with the HKNP's pro-independence ideas, the concern is freedom of speech is being threatened and they fear  they are using Chan as a first test case.

"Hongkongers might not have democracy, but we can't do without freedom of speech, so don't underestimate us," she said.

The Hong Kong government is hoping we don't get behind the HKNP so we don't notice how hard it has cracked down on the party -- that isn't even registered.

It's unfortunate this amateur party has been singled out, but we must defend its right to speak out.

Footnote: On July 31, the security bureau gave the HKNP another 28 days to file its claim, with the new deadline on September 4.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Modern Australian Cuisine in Singapore

Whitegrass' circular dining room is elegant and not pretentious either
A food writer friend in Singapore suggested we have lunch at one of her favourite places, Whitegrass, which has just retained its Michelin one-star rating. It opened in 2016 and is run by executive chef-owner Sam Aisbett, who cooks modern Australian and uses Japanese ingredients in many of his dishes.

Sashimi yellowtail with caviar, yuzu kosho and seaweed oil
The restaurant is located in Chijmes, the complex that used to be a Catholic school, so the space Whitegrass uses is a heritage one so it has an old soul, but also sophisticated feel to it, but not over-the-top.

Outside there are tables to dine al fresco, but it's too hot for that and we went inside, sitting in the circular space at the back that fits about 28 people if completely full.

We looked at the three-course set lunch menu which looked like a good way to go, though there was an option for a five-course, and a tasting menu. To start an amuse bouche of ginger milk curd topped with delicious peas and seasoned with bottarga. It was so delicate and delicious, whetting the appetite for what was to come.

Scallop yin yang with Iberico pork neck underneath
My starter was sashimi yellowtail amberjack with Japanese land caviar, yuzu kosho and toasted seaweed oil. It was a taste of the sea in this dish, with the fresh yellowtail slices, mixed with small cucumbers and yuzu kosho, punctuated with bursts of caviar and seasoned with seaweed sauce.

Meanwhile my friend had the slow roasted young beetroots with fresh goats cheese fetta, with crispy red quinoa, juniper and sour leaves.

Next came an extra dish for us -- scallop yin yang that had one sheet white, the other black from squid ink made from scallops. Underneath were chunks of slow-roasted Iberico pork neck that was so tender, with shiitake custard, lotus seed, and pork rib broth poured in tableside.

Sea bream with razor clam, pomelo and kombu butter
It seems strange mixing scallop and pork together and we like the interesting presentation, but perhaps it's trying to get used to the idea of putting these two ingredients together.

Our main course was red sea bream with steamed razor clam, Japanese mukago yam, pomelo and shio kombu butter. It was disappointing the sea bream was a tad overcooked, but otherwise enjoyed the flavours of this dish, sweet and savoury along with the colours in the shallow bowl.

Finally for dessert, Amazake milk mousse with Japanese nashi pear, shiso leaf granita and a scoop of pear ice cream. Loved the shiso leaf granita! It was so refreshing and went well with the crunchy pear balls, but the milk mousse was too much cream for my taste.

Milk mousse (left) with shiso leaf granita and pear ice cream!
Redemption in the form of petite fours -- small strawberry lamingtons that had a cold strawberry middle, and the other was a gourmet bite that tasted like a snickers bar -- chocolate, peanut butter and a bit of caramel.

Our bill came to S$95 or HK$548 (US$70) each. We look forward to better things from the talented chef Sam!

30 Victoria Street #01-26/27
(65) 6837 0402

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Spicy Hot at Shisen Hanten

The signature stewed fish fillet in super spicy broth!
An ex-colleague I used to work with in Beijing has been working in Singapore for three years now and when I told him I was going to visit, he suggested we go to a restaurant he quite likes.
It's called Shisen Hanten by Chen Kentaro, a two-star Michelin restaurant -- that retained its two stars a few days ago -- featuring Sichuan cuisine cooked by a Japanese chef.
The dining room is rather quiet with many chandeliers
It's located on the top floor of Mandarin Orchard Singapore, a snazzy building along Orchard Road, the Rodeo Drive of the Lion City.
We were greeted on one floor, and then walk down the stairs into the dining area that's very large, dim and lit by large chandeliers.
The restaurant was started back in 1958 by Chen Kemin, who, according to the menu's introduction, is considered to be the "Father of Szechwan cuisine" in Japan.

The salted egg fish skin were crispy but quite oily
The reins were passed on to the eldest son, Chen Kenichi, who was best known as Iron Chef Chinese in the original TV show, Iron Chef. You may remember he was the one who wore a yellow Chinese jacket with black frog buttons on it.
Probably because of his fame, Chen Kenichi was able to expand the business outside of Japan. The branch in Singapore opened in 2014 with now the third generation, Chen Kentaro as executive chef. And since the Michelin guide has been in Singapore, the restaurant has retained its two stars for three years in a row.
To start our meal we had some salted egg fish skin. It's delicious, very crispy, but a tad oily. We munched on them throughout our meal. 
Something not spicy, vegetables with three eggs in broth
Next came the stewed fish fillet in super-spicy Szechwan pepper sauce (S$38 per portion). Indeed the black cast iron pot arrived covered in dried red chillis that signaled it would be a red hot dining experience.
One of the waitresses used a ladle to wade into the chillis to find the pieces of fish to put into our bowls. It came with bean sprouts and slices of cucumber. The fish was perfectly cooked, and surprisingly not too spicy, while the bean sprouts were too hot for me and I must have drank an entire tea pot of chrysanthemum tea in a pathetic attempt to cool down.
The fish was firm, not flaky and had the subtle mala taste, while the sprouts overwhelmed my taste buds.
The signature mapo tofu that was spicy with a mala numbness
To help me balance out the spiciness, we ordered stir-fried seasonal vegetable with trio of eggs in superior stock (S$22), which was basically potato leaves mixed with thousand year old egg, salty egg and egg whites in an orangey broth. Perhaps this dish wasn't quite finessed, but for me was a welcome respite from the spice.
Finally another signature dish, Chen's mapo doufu, featuring stir-fried tofu in hot Szechwan pepper-flavoured meat sauce (S$26 per portion). This was also fantastic, the silken tofu combined with the spicy meat sauce -- I mean really spicy meat sauce to have that mala taste that numbed the tongue.
In the end I managed to eat as much as I could without needing to call the fire brigade, and it made me wonder why the Japanese would be interested in mastering such a cuisine, when something technically difficult like Cantonese or dim sum might be more interesting for them.
Nevertheless, it was quite enjoyable, though the atmosphere seemed too quiet for a Sichuan restaurant where chillis inspire people to be hot-blooded, no? Oh wait we're in a Japanese restaurant...
Shisen Hanten
Orchard Wing Level 35
Mandarin Orchard Singapore
333 Orchard Road
Singapore 238867
(65) 6831 6262

Friday, 27 July 2018

Memorable Lunch at Odette

Odette with its light pastel palette and high ceilings
Back in June I had a chance to try chef Julien Royer's food at a pop-up he did at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong. Despite cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen, the dishes he presented were beautifully plated, and of course delicious. I vividly remember the beetroot, and the pigeon dishes, so flavourful and not heavy.
So on my recent trip to Singapore I had to try his food again in his restaurant, Odette. It opened in 2015 in the National Gallery Singapore, the Supreme Court building re-purposed into an art gallery. Odette isn't the only restaurant -- there are many others, like National Kitchen serving Singaporean cuisine, Yan with Cantonese food, and even a bar called Smoke & Mirrors on the sixth floor.

Chef/owner of Odette, Julien Royer
But back to Odette, which is named after Royer's grandmother. He watched her cook as a child, getting all her ingredients from the farm in Auvergne, France -- he didn't grow up buying food from a supermarket like the rest of us.
After working with the likes of Michel Bras Bernard Andrieux, Royer had a chance to go to Singapore -- at the time he didn't even know where it was on the map -- and worked at the St Regis Singapore's Brasserie Les Saveurs and then Jaan, in the Swissotel The Stamford before opening his own restaurant.

A cep mushroom tea with a slice of truffle brioche
Inside it's airy with high ceilings, a very romantic palette of dusty pink, cream and beige, with an open kitchen off to the side, and diners seated in comfortable banquettes. The staff are well dressed, friendly and chatty with guests as they introduce each dish -- there is no atmosphere of condescension or arrogance. Everything is politely explained. One server admitted to us he didn't like beetroots at all -- until he tried Royer's dish that I mentioned earlier.
There is a lot of attention to detail, from how the cutlery and tableware is designed to the execution of the dishes and how they are served at the table. We also liked the pacing that gave us enough time to eat, savour and digest a bit before moving onto the next course.
Uni with red prawn tartare, mussel foam and caviar
So what did we eat? A lot, but we were not overly stuffed.
First a trio of "snacks" -- a mini salad in a lettuce leaf with peas, cherry tomato, onion and pea shoots that were so dainty. This was followed by a tart filled with orange gems of salmon roe that bursted when we bit into them. Finally a tiny spoon with fish mixed with vegetable.
Another starter was a mushroom soup that was poured into ceramic tea cups filled with foam, light truffle shavings and tiny croutons with truffle brioche. Even the wooden board it was served on was shaped like a cep mushroom.
Japanese Kegani crab "ravioli" with Granny Smith, celery
Then came bread -- a pastry with truffle paste in it, a delicious crusty sourdough bread, and another with lemon flavour. What was even more interesting was the spread -- there was whipped butter with olive oil, and the other was lard! We didn't have too much of the latter.
Finally the meal started with an impressive-looking dish of the sea urchin shell and in it was uni, spot prawn tartare, a foam made of mussels and topped with caviar and gold leaf. An intriguing combination that worked well together.
Next a "ravioli" featuring Japanese Kegani crab meat mixed with Granny Smith apple and celery, with Vadouvan spices and kaffir lime oil that was so light and refreshing. The sweetness of the crab balanced the tartness of the green apple, and added celery for a crunchy texture. Wow was all we could say.
Heirloom beetroot variation in a colourful presentation
My favourite dish arrived -- heirloom beetroot variation, featuring segments of the humble vegetable that was also made into a sorbet, mini meringue and paired with horseradish, stracciatella and even honey. The plate was too pretty to eat, but we were encouraged to mix everything together to try the various flavours.
Making a dramatic entrance was the rosemary smoked organic egg, presented in a lowly egg carton, but with dry ice flowing out of it. In it were two 63.4 degree Celsius cooked eggs flavoured with rosemary. They were carefully poured into a smoked potato foam and in it were bits of chorizo Iberico and meuniere sauce. We were instructed to mix it -- but not too much -- so that the yolk flavour would be more pronounced. Another wow.
Crispy skinned amadai in a glass bowl made its way to our table, where smoked egg consomme was poured into the bowl that was garnished with yari ika and nori oil. The fish was delicate and perfectly cooked, what an intriguing consomme of eel! Who would think of that?
Crispy skinned amadai in an eel consomme and nori oil
The main event is Royer's signature roast pigeon dish, here it was covered in a pepper crust and cooked medium rare. It was accompanied with another humble vegetable -- corn and here it held its own with its crunchiness and sweetness against the juiciness of pigeon. 
Each pigeon leg has a different message attached to it tied with string, talking about how he loved eating pigeon as a child, or how one should eat the leg with your hands. We certainly polished it off down to the bone.
Before dessert we had a cheese platter with some goat cheese, a triple cream brie, and comte, with the largest dates I've ever seen.
Roast pigeon with a pepper crust and message attached to it
Then we had our pre-dessert, a refreshing cucumber sorbet with seaweed sprinkled on small bits of meringue, and green apple granita. We would have already been satisfied with this dessert. But there was more.
The actual dessert was clafoutis, a kind of flan cake, decorated with cherries, elderflower sorbet, vanilla cream and almond slivers.
But wait -- there's more! Royer came to our table with an oval-shaped hive that revealed layers of petite fours. On top were two pomegranate lollipops, next mini matcha cream puffs, caneles, and finally homemade caramels.
In the end the damage came to S$442 or HK$2,547 (US$325) for two. Considering we had two-star Michelin dining -- and the restaurant retained its two stars the following day when the announcement was made -- it was very good value.
Cherry clafoutis with elderflower sorbet, vanilla and almonds
Many media at the Michelin announcement were disappointed that Odette was not elevated to three stars, but Royer insisted he was very happy for the team that the contemporary French restaurant retained its two stars and they would work harder next time.
I asked him how he felt about the media's expectations of Odette, and he pointed out the restaurant was only three years old so there was plenty of time to develop and grow. Our meal the day before was almost perfection -- why not? But then again the Michelin ratings are mired with questions of who really deserves two stars and who should get three...
Nevertheless we were delighted, thrilled, amazed and sated by our lunch at Odette. A chance to savour and to catch up with a dear friend who accompanied me. What a treat.
National Gallery Singapore
1 St Andrew's Road #01-04
Singapore 178957
(65) 6385 0498

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The Ritual of Dining

There's beautiful architecture in the Chijmes complex
Singapore has lots of spanking new malls... every other street has one with all the same stores.

But there are some interesting heritage buildings and one of them is Chijmes, pronounced "Chimes" in the downtown area that was only minutes from my tiny hotel.

It was founded in 1852 by Father Jean-Marie Beurel, who wanted to start a school in Singapore, and later it was taken over by nuns who ran a school for girls, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.

The buildings underwent major conservation many years ago
Then in 1933 it was known as Saint Nicholas Girls' School; 50 years later the school was moved to another location and the chapel was deconsecrated.

So for some people of a certain generation, it was a Catholic school they attended. But in 1990 the building complex that takes up one city block was put up for sale and from 1991 it underwent five years of conservation and restoration work and now features many restaurants, bars and even a massage place.

For former students it's a shock to see the place where they went to school become a place for people to dine and drink alcohol, but for many of us it's an beautiful complex that's being used in a fun way.

This is where Lei Garden is! Imagine having dim sum there!
I went there in the evening to check it out and there are ramen and teppanyaki restaurants, bars and pubs in the basement, and there's even a Lei Garden outlet that has an outdoor patio space. Might be too hot for dim sum though...

30 Victoria Street
Singapore 187996

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Picture of the Day: Michelin in Singapore

Reporters and photographers taking pictures of the chefs with one Michelin star
After I booked my plane ticket to Singapore, a food writer friend there told me I would be there when the Michelin announcement would be made. Why not go?

It was held tonight at Resorts World Sentosa, this massive complex that houses a casino as well as Universal Studios, about 20 minutes from the city centre.

The event started late (of course) and finally they announced which restaurants received one star. There are 34 this year, five of which are new. This year the chefs were given chef jackets, not a copy of the guide in previous years, which was pretty tacky.

After they were feted on stage in the ballroom, the chefs were ushered into the media room where photographers and reporters wanted to get their pictures too.

It was a mad rush -- much like it is in Hong Kong -- with everyone using smartphones or proper cameras to get a shot.

I much prefer getting a picture of them getting the picture. It just shows how excited everyone is.

In the end five restaurants were coveted with two stars (the same ones), but no restaurant was given three stars, as the current holder, Joel Robuchon Restaurant, will close next month at Resorts World Sentosa due to financial difficulties.

Singapore's Burgeoning Art Collection

Inside the National Gallery Singapore there is a lot of space to roam around
After an epic lunch at Odette, the contemporary French fine dining restaurant at the National Gallery Singapore, my friend and I walked around the museum.

I came here over two years ago and was very impressed by the renovation of the Supreme Court Building into a beautiful space that has a lot of room for people to wander and many restaurants and cafes. 

Georgette Cheng's Family Portrait
We checked out one exhibition in particular -- (Re) Collect: The Making of our Art Collection.

The museum went through its collection of over 8,600 pieces and showed almost 130 of them that demonstrate how it has evolved since the 1960s. In it there are works by various Asian artists not only from China like Zao Wou-ki, but also Indonesian, Malaysian and of course Singaporean.

One of the artists that caught my eye in particular was Georgette Chen (nee Chang Li Ying) (1906-1993), originally from Zhejiang province. Her father was an antiques dealer with businesses in Paris, London and New York. He was also a supporter of Dr Sun Yat-sen, which is why Chen and her 11 siblings -- yes a family of 12 children -- were encouraged to speak Mandarin at home and were sometimes taken on trips to China to see the revolutionary effort.

As she was born into a privileged household, she was allowed her to follow her interest in art and even went to Paris and New York to study. She eventually settled on Paris, where she met Eugene Chen, a Chinese diplomat and friend of Dr Sun. Chen was also an art and music lover who encouraged Georgette's art career. They married in 1930.

One of S. Sudjojono's sketches of daily life
However, during the Sino-Japanese war, they were imprisoned and her husband died in 1944 in Shanghai.

She moved to Singapore and her art focused on still lifes, landscapes, and the human figure. In the exhibition there are some of her works, including one called Family Portrait. It features the family of Chen Fa Shin, a long time family friend of the artist.

The description of the work explains the family was close to her as indicated by their relaxed postures. Each family member took turns posing for her, as she sketched them in charcoal and then she painted over the lines with oil.

Chen also became a teacher at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts for many years.

Another interesting artist is Indonesian artist S. Sudjojono (1913-1986). The museum presents a series of ink and watercolour sketches that look like the precursor to infographics. The sketches are so intricate and include some text. They are observations of daily life as well as portraits and urban landscapes.

Stacks of old medicine bottles by Navin Rawanchaikul
One particularly intriguing work is by Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul (b. 1971). His art installation, Asking for Nothingness looks like a massive collection of old medical bottles stacked up in several circular shelves.

But when you walk behind the stacks, the bottles aren't empty -- they are filled with black and white photographs of elderly people. You can't really see their faces and you're not meant to. The artist is shining a spotlight on how society neglects the elderly and illiiterate caused by rapid modernization.

This is Rawanchaikul's attempt to preserve the seniors' stories, reaffirming their cultural value in society. It's a pretty eerie piece, but it's provocative and forces you to think of all these people, shoved in the back of a cabinet and forgotten.

The National Gallery Singapore also has amazing views on its top floor. When you emerge from the elevator, the roof actually has water running on the glass ceiling and it creates a beautiful reflection of the urban landscape nearby. 

The bottles have pictures of elderly people in them
The rooftop area also provides great views of Marina Bay Sands, the exhibition centre and a massive grassy area for cricket. Of course there are restaurants and bars there for guests who want to eat and drink while taking in the view.

National Gallery Singapore
1 St Andrew's Road

Monday, 23 July 2018

Fish Head Curry Fix

The fish head curry arrived bubbling at our table! Hot and delicious!
When in Singapore, local friends ask, where are you eating?! It's serious business that needs to be sorted.

One of my first meals? Fish head curry.

I fondly remember back in 1999 coming to Singapore on business and my colleagues took us to a back street eatery where they served this giant fish head sitting in a platter of curry sauce with okra and eggplant. It was mildly spicy and the fish head had so much meat we were stuffed.

I hadn't had it since and so one of my good friends took me to a place called Samy's Curry Restaurant on Dempsey Road.

My banana leaf plate with vegetables and biryani rice
It was started by M Veerasamy, a chef from southern India who originally came to Singapore to cook for a group of Indian merchants who traveled to Singapore for trading. He opened his first outlet in the 1960s and then moved it to two other locations before finally settling on where it is today.

Diners either sit under fans, or further inside where there is air conditioning and we opted for the latter. Perhaps because there were only three of us we ordered a small fish head curry, along with masala chicken and lime juice.

We didn't have plates -- the servers gave us cut up banana leaves as our plates and promptly put a scoop of biryani rice (or white rice), along with some potatoes in a very mild red curry sauce, and another in a yellow sauce.

The fish head came bubbling in a clay pot and it doesn't look too appetizing, but it was delicious. The meat from the snapper was perfectly cooked, so it was firm and not flaky, the curry sauce was so flavourful, full of herbs and spices. Dig further underneath and there was also okra and Thai eggplants.

We also ordered some spicy masala chicken drum sticks
Meanwhile the masala chicken was spicier, and also delicious, but I preferred the full flavours of the fish head curry washed down with lime juice -- and all that rice!

Many locals specifically come to Samy's Curry, preferring it to Muthu's Curry in Little India, which was just giving the Bib Gourmand by the Michelin guide two days ago. Loyal Samy's diners say it should get the Michelin nod, but the current owner doesn't care. He's busy as it is and happy to have his regular customers.

Samy's Curry Restaurant
25 Dempsey Road
Singapore 246970
(65) 6472 2080

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Review: Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards

Manolo Blahnik is a man all women love for his gorgeous shoes
On the flight to Singapore, our in-flight entertainment on Cathay Pacific wasn't working and so it wasn't until more than half way through the flight that it was re-booted and we could finally watch something.

With only an hour and a half to go, I picked a quick documentary to watch -- one on the maestro of shoes, Manolo Blahnik.

The man is 75 years old now and still going strong. He was born in the Canary Islands in Spain to an Austrian-Hungarian father and Spanish mother who were well-to-do. His mother instilled a sense of style in the young boy, and he became very creative, ditching his parents' plans for him to become a diplomat and instead going to Paris and London.

During his childhood he did make shoes for lizards
His childhood memories of his home was wandering the gardens and used foil that wrapped chocolate bars and made them into shoes for lizards. Hence the title of the documentary.

Blahnik learned shoe making from his mother, who made her own shoes, and she learned through a cobbler in the Canary Islands. In the end Blahnik didn't have formal training in making shoes, but he is very involved in the entire process from beginning to end.

He also draws every shoe that he produces, and uses watercolours to paint them. He has a wonderful imagination, inspired by all kinds of things from flowers -- wisteria are his favourite -- to the sea, to colours. 

In 1970 he had an opportunity to meet Diana Vreeland, the arbiter of taste who was then the editor-in-chief of US Vogue. He was so nervous meeting her that he could barely say anything. After she looked at his drawings she declared: "Young man, make things, make accessories, make shoes."

She suggested he focus on shoes and he followed her advice.

He got his big break in 1972 to create shoes for a runway show. However, when he made the heels with rubber soles, he forgot to put steel in them to support the heel; it was really painful for the models to walk in them, that they seemed to create a new way of walking the runway. Luckily for Blahnik, the mistake turned into a blessing.

He starts off by sketching each shoe, painting by hand
Success swept up with him in the 1980s and of course the 1990s with Sex in the City -- he was overwhelmed that women were willing to drop US$500 for a pair thanks to a fictional character who was obsessed with his heels. 

And of course the film has numerous testimonials from US Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to singer Rihanna and models Karlie Kloss and Naomi Campbell fawning over Blahnik's shoes. 

But what would have been more interesting would be to follow him from sketch to shoe, as he personally oversees every part of the shoe production. It is only towards the end of the film that the camera follows Blahnik in Italy when he visits a shoe factory. 

He puts on a white coat -- complete with a handkerchief in the pocket -- and he gets to work fashioning the heel out of wood. He is the one literally carving it and smoothing it out with the machine while a craftsman looks on. From there we watch how the shoe is fashioned, the satin sewn on, jewels set, or lace laid on top. 

His designs, colours and decorations are elegant and stylish
There is also a question about his personal life -- to which no friends can answer, and he himself would rather be busy creating more shoes. Trying to pry into someone's personal life is redundant here -- we just want to know more about how he translates ideas onto shoes.

Nevertheless it was interesting to hear about his early days, hanging out with model Bianca Jagger and actor Rupert Everett, how he was a model at one point, and how he let Wintour's toddler son create a mess in his shoe shop.

He also pays tribute to three muses -- Anna Piaggi, the eccentric editor of Vogue Italy, Isabella Blow, fashion muse, and model Tina Chow. All three women have died in the last few years, Blahnik must be missing them terribly.

In any event he continues to work, traveling to his different homes and taking in as much of nature as he can. He seems to work solitary, but is very social when he needs to be. His impeccable taste in clothes makes him practically the only man who can pull off a lilac suit.

He says he is very lucky to be able to find something he loves to do and is enjoying every moment. We're glad he is too.

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (2017)
Directed by Michael Roberts
79 minutes

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Word of the Day: Buddhist Youth

Xin Shi Xiang is a WeChat account dedicated to Buddhist youth culture
There is a term for post-90s generation in China who are described as slackers -- they aren't driven, they don't have needs or expectations.

In a way it sounds Buddhist, as they try not to let things bother them, they avoid conflict and try not to take anyone or anything too seriously.

And so these young people are called Buddhist youth or 佛系青年 fúxì qīngnián.

If you can't decide what to eat, have the same as yesterday
Here are some examples of how they apply their philosophy to everyday life:

Catching a ride: You can just stay wherever you are. I will walk over.

In a relationship: You decide. I'm fine with anything.

Ordering food: I have no idea what to eat. Maybe just order the same food I had yesterday.

Child rearing: Not man children can be successful people when they grow up, so I want my kid just to have a happy childhood.

At work: I desire nothing more than to arrive at my office safely and to leave my office quietly.

While Buddhist youth sounds like demotivational culture, some argue this kind of attitude helps young people ease their anxiety and pressure.

In a relationship, one says: you decide. I'm fine with anything
However, the Chinese government doesn't sound too pleased the next generation doesn't seem to care about anything.

The People's Daily wrote two opinion pieces last December. The first one warned: "There's nothing wrong with young people having a breezy attitude toward everything. But we have to remember, there's always some issues that we need to put our hearts into."

The second article said: "Being demotivated is pessimistic enough, but what's even worse is stopping yourself from having any sort of feelings, even it is lack of motivation. Young people by nature should be energetic, positive, passionate about life, and curious about the world."

Does anyone you know fit the term Buddhist youth?

Friday, 20 July 2018

Donald Tsang Loses Appeal

Donald Tsang was rushed to hospital after he lost his appeal in court
Disgraced former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen did it again -- he came into court to hear the verdict of his appeal, and came out claiming illness and was carried out in a stretcher.

Today his appeal to turn over a conviction for misconduct while in public office was rejected. It was for not declaring his interest in a three-storey penthouse flat in Shenzhen that he was leasing from a company owned by Chinese businessman Bill Wong Cho-bau.

Businessman Bill Wong Cho-bau let Tsang a flat in Shenzhen
Wong was also majority shareholder of radio station Wave Media, that was applying for a  broadcasting license of which Tsang was in charge of approving these license applications.

Three Court of Appeal judges unanimously ruled the evidence was "formidable as it was compelling", that the 73-year-old Tsang had concealed this conflict of interest from the public while he was chief executive from 2005-2012.

However, his original sentence of 20 months in jail was reduced to 12 months, while his fine of HK$3 million to cover prosecution costs was dropped to only HK$1 million.

Apparently the court took into consideration the impact of paying the full amount would have had on Tsang, as he was "not a wealthy businessman but a retired civil servant", who would depend solely on his savings and pension in his remaining years.
Tsang was to live in the penthouse flat

Can we remind readers that the salary of the chief executive of Hong Kong is over HK$300,000 a month -- which is more than what then US President Barack Obama was paid at HK$260,000, while Chinese President Xi Jinping makes HK$14,000.

And being a career civil servant for 40 years, surely Tsang has a decent chunk of change in the bank -- he certainly made much more than the average person in Hong Kong -- or perhaps he is completely unaware of how us plebeians live.

How long will he be at Queen Mary Hospital in Pokfulam, and will that count for jail time as well?

Meanwhile, outside the court his wife Selina Tsang Pou Siu-mei said, "Today I feel disappointed, and my heart aches."

Tsang looked fine when he arrived at court this morning
Will this be the last we hear of Tsang, the son of a police officer? Probably not...