Singapore travel- Exploring the (Mer)Lion City

While the city-state is basking in the spotlight as the location of the Crazy Rich Asians movie, I thought it was timely to showcase Singapore here as well. Modern, attractive, orderly, the city is without doubt Southeast Asia’s most prosperous metropolis and one of Asia’s as well. The only drawback is that it possesses those attributes in such great quantities that it overshadows any gritty or distinctive character and lacks a certain kind of charm that say, Hanoi or Bangkok have.

Nevertheless, Singapore has several interesting places of attractions and attractive landmarks. The Gardens by the Bay was very interesting, with a massive domed plant conservatory and an indoor waterfall, as well as its “Supertrees.” As the entry fees were not exactly cheap (foreigners are charged much more than locals, which is surprising since Singapore is one of the world’s richest countries), I chose to forego walking on top of the Supertrees. Nearby are the unique Marina Bay Sands hotel which features a long upper deck that lies atop three towers, and the iconic Merlion, Singapore’s lion-headed fish statue that is also the city’s symbol. Its downtown boasts some decent skyscrapers, lots of open space, museums like the Asian Civilizations Museum, as well as colonial architecture like St Andrew’s Cathedral and the National Gallery Singapore, housed in a magnificent gray colonial building that overlooks the Padang, a large playing field which also houses the Singapore Cricket Club. The Asian Civilizations Museum features artifacts from India, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Pakistan, which is a great idea but the collection was not that big.

As befitting its multiethnic society, Singapore has neighborhoods like Little India, Kampong Glam (sometimes called Muslim Quarter), and Chinatown. Little India, where I stayed in, was very busy on the weekend with lots of Indians, both local Singaporeans and migrant workers, as well as tourists. The main attribute is that there are tons of Indian restaurants and just thinking about it now makes me want to go back. Kampong Glam is a former Arab and Malay neighborhood that has been extensively restored and fixed up for tourists with cafes, shops and some nice murals. The neighborhood still has a lot of Muslims and is home to Singapore’s largest mosque, Masjid Sultan, a handsome building built in 1928. One can walk inside the compound and peer at the main hall as well as walk around. Chinatown did not seem that interesting to me (there is the Buddha Tooth Relic temple but I didn’t bother to go inside), but there are some older shophouses and decent open-air shopping streets.

Supertrees, Gardens by the Bay

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s most famous landmark

Masjid Sultan, Singapore’s largest mosque Continue reading “Singapore travel- Exploring the (Mer)Lion City”

Crazy Rich Asians’ undeserved hype

So “Crazy Rich Asians” came out in movie theaters two weeks ago and it has matched its hype as a Hollywood with an all-Asian cast. It has been praised by countless critics and moviegoers, especially Asian-Americans who see the release of CRA as a truly ground-breaking event. I read the book, as well as its two sequels, but I haven’t seen the movie yet. I enjoyed the book a lot, as I wrote on this blog, and I think I would like the movie. But the reaction hasn’t been all positive with the CRA movie, and I agree with several of the arguments.

The movie has been criticized by some Singaporeans, who see it as showing off a simplified version of their country where everybody is wealthy and Chinese-Singaporean with the exception of the minority Indian and Southeast Asian maids and servants. Ethnic Chinese do make up about 75% of the country’s population, but ethnic Malays and Indians consist of the remaining one-quarter. Imagine if one watched a movie about the US or Britain where everyone was white and there were no blacks, Latinos, etc; would that be cool?

Others have argued that the movie presents a distorted version of Chinese identity that fits in with Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Indeed the movie opens with a quote from Napoleon who supposedly said when China “wakes”, it would awake the world (if I remember correctly, the book also began with this line). Now, all the main characters and families are ethnic Chinese whose ancestors came from China, but what do their lives and success have to do with China? Singapore is an independent country, not part of China. This also extends to language, where Mandarin, the main language of China, is heavily spoken by characters, whereas Hokkien and Cantonese are hardly used.

This matters because ethnic Chinese often speak their regional language, so even many Chinese from China speak Cantonese, Shanghainese or Hokkien at home, while in Taiwan, many speak Taiwanese, which is similar to Hokkien. In both the book and movie, Rachel, the main female protagonist who is Chinese-American, speaks Mandarin with her mother. Yet her mother comes from the Chinese province of Guangdong, which is mainly Cantonese-speaking. Very few people from Guangdong, especially those of Rachel’s mother’s generation, speak Mandarin with their family.

My main criticism is that the praise given to the movie for breaking racial movie-casting barriers in the US is undeserved. The title of the book and the movie are misleading because they do not represent “Asians” at all. What they represent is wealthy, high-class Chinese-Singaporeans who live in a bubble where they mainly interact with other ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and across the region. Asia is not merely Chinese people or China, but the world’s biggest continent with dozens of countries and peoples with different cultures, religions, races and ethnicities.

Yet in CRA’s “Asia,” there are no Indians, Malays, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Iranians etc (the books do have minor characters from countries like Thailand and Philippines who play very miniscule roles). I know in the US and Canada, the word “Asians” is usually used by Chinese-Americans and Canadians, because it’s probably more convenient and less awkward to say “Chinese” due to political and historical reasons. I think Korean-Americans and perhaps those hailing from Southeast Asia also call themselves Asian-Americans, though I’m not sure Indian/Pakistani/Sri Lankan-Americans do that. Whatever the case, the fact is Asia is not China and Asians are not only Chinese/of Chinese descent.┬áThe movie is set completely in Singapore, which is just a small bit of Asia, and even then, the movie does not show Singapore’s ethnic diversity. I get why Kevin Kwan used the word “Asians” in his book’s title because using “Crazy Rich Chinese-Singaporeans” wouldn’t sound as interesting or cool.

My problem isn’t with the book or movie. My problem is with all the hype about the movie. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t represent Asians, but just a certain segment of Asians.

China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems- book reviews

Continuing on from Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan came out with China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems to complete a mesmerizing trilogy.

China Rich Girlfriend sees the spotlight turn to China. Nick and Rachel, the main couple from the first book, are getting married in the US when they receive a stunning revelation about Rachel’s real father. It turns out he is one of China’s richest billionaires and a rising Party official. But while he is receptive to receiving Rachel and welcoming the couple to Shanghai, his wife is not so keen. The extravagance factor goes up by several notches in China as we get treated to details about China’s rich elite. Somehow the main characters fly off to Paris where things get heated between Rachel’s half-brother and his socialite girlfriend.

This book is more over-the-top than its prequel, Crazy Rich Asians, and the China parts didn’t interest me much. I suspect that the author is not as familiar with China as he is with Singapore or Europe so that is why he didn’t spend too much time on China. Because what fascinates me about these books is not the luxury brands and high-end lifestyle descriptions, but the social and cultural references and explanations. As such, I didn’t find China Rich Girlfriend as interesting as Crazy Rich Asians. That said, Kwan includes a deadly Ferrari crash that is based on a real-life accident involving the son of presidential aide Ling Jihua in Beijing in 2012 so it shows he did his research on Chinese politics.

Rich People Problems concludes the saga as Nick’s 94-year-old grandmother Su Yi, the family head, falls seriously ill, bringing all her children and grandchildren to the family mansion in Singapore. Besides filial piety, there are more practical reasons for the family gathering, namely who gets what from Su Yi’s financial fortune. Readers get a glimpse of Su Yi’s early life from flashbacks of Su Yi’s experiences during World War II when she fled to India after the Japanese invasion of Singapore, as well as memories of her interactions with her brother and father. There are some mysterious bits concerning those flashbacks and Nick’s parents that are not explained so perhaps there is room for further books in the future. The conclusion wraps up a bit too neatly and conveniently.

The three books in the trilogy were all very fun reads that really pulled you in because of the many interesting details.
That said, there are a few problems.
For one, it is a pity that the few self-made main characters in the trilogy are made out to be wretched or deeply flawed. One of them, Kitty Pong, is an actress with a dubious past who tries to upgrade her standing in society by jumping from man to man to man (but is actually one of the funnier characters), while another, Michael, the husband of Nick’s cousin Astrid (a wealthy heiress in her own right), is a former soldier and tech entrepreneur from a middle-class family who warps from a decent man into an arrogant and status-obsessed social climber.
Another issue is that while the sheer amount of details pertaining to luxury brands, food and cultural quirks is a strength, sometimes the wealth and brand descriptions are so extreme and drawn out as to be inconsequential.

All in all, the trilogy was very entertaining, with the first and third books being particularly good reads.

Singapore- first impressions

Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories. Tiny and lacking natural resources, the city state managed to raise itself from an impoverished reject (it was briefly part of Malaysia before being kicked out) in 1965 to become one of the world’s richest nations and major financial hubs. Singapore manages to punch well above its weight in business, trade, tech, tourism, and regional politics. Singapore is also unique in that it was ruled by a legendary strongman who was very respected, feared and admired – the late Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in 2015. Much of Singapore’s economic success and development has been credited to his leadership. But Lee also contributed to Singapore’s reputation as a nanny state due to severe laws that limit freedom of expression, dissent, and other more banal things (like chewing gum for instance). While supposedly a democracy, Singapore has been ruled by only one party, Lee’s PAP, which always wins elections in an overwhelming manner (PAP currently hold 83 out of 89 seats).

I visited Singapore last year for the first time, and I was prepared to be bored, but instead I was quite impressed by the buildings and attractions, and how modern the country was in general. There was a lot of open space and greenery, and places did not feel crowded, despite being a small country with over 5 million. While the population is about 75% ethnic Chinese, Indians, Malays and expats make up the other 25%, and this was apparent everywhere in terms of the people and the food.

My birthplace Hong Kong seems to regard Singapore as its main competitor, due to both being tiny city states that are thriving financial hubs and former British colonies. But from what I saw, Hong Kong is so far behind that there is almost no contest. As mentioned, Singapore felt so spacious and uncongested, in comparison to Hong Kong and its cramped buildings and sidewalks and very crowded spaces.

Also, Hong Kong has nothing like the Gardens by the Bay or the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which even though they often appear in countless photos , are impressive to see in person. I saw a lot of towers with rooftop gardens or plants strewn across the building itself, which besides supposedly being good for the environment also looks kind of cool. I’m sure Hong Kong might have similar buildings, but I haven’t seen any yet.

However, there were a few issues.
As spacious and clean as the streets and buildings in Singapore were, it often felt a bit too orderly. While not boring, I did feel like everything was a bit too perfect and artificial. In fact, parts of the city were a bit sparse like the riverside where the Asian Civilizations Museum was.

I also found the subway system to be kind of slow. For instance, I took the subway from my hotel in Little India to the airport, thinking it would take 1 hour, but in reality it took almost 1 hour and a half, which resulted in me having to rush to check in and scramble to my gate (I made my flight). Apparently, when going to Changi airport by subway, you need to get off at Tanah Merah station and wait for another train to go the final two stops, which took about 15 minutes to come. I hadn’t realized it would take so long because I thought that as a train going to the airport, it would be more frequent.
I also took the subway to visit a friend who worked there as an expat. Foolishly, I thought 45 minutes would be enough since I only had go less than 10 stations, albeit transferring twice, but instead it took over an hour.

A very surprising issue is the dual pricing at attractions like the Gardens at the Bay, which means Singaporeans pay much less than tourists. While this exists across Southeast Asia, I was surprised at seeing this in Singapore since it is a very wealthy country (if anything tourists should be paying less than locals, but I know locals have contributed to these attractions through tax). Still, dual pricing doesn’t exist across Europe, Japan or North America.

It may not be a place to stay for too long or go wild and let loose (go to Thailand for that) but Singapore is a very interesting small country that is an oasis of calm and order in Southeast Asia.

Crazy Rich Asians- book review

Even though Crazy Rich Asians and its two sequels have earned a lot of acclaim, I held off on reading it for a long time because I wasn’t sure I cared about the lives of rich, high-class Singaporeans/Asians. Especially when the main plot centers on an American-Chinese girl, Rachel, flying to Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nicholas, whose family is one of the country’s wealthiest. Why would I find a romantic love story filled with wealth and extravagance interesting? Well, I did read Crazy Rich Asians, and I have to admit I found it interesting and more.

First off, the romantic plot is actually not the main point of the book – the lifestyle of the wealthy and elite Asian is. After getting past the convoluted beginning, which seemed to introduced several dozen characters (a mild exaggeration) and their backstories which focused on how rich they were, the story became more fascinating. That it is almost wholly set in Singapore, with a bit of Hong Kong and China included, made it interesting to me because I know little about the country. More specifically, it introduced the idea of a Singaporean old-money elite, which is distinct from the merely wealthy in the scale of their wealth, sophistication and their place in society. I suppose this is similar to the UK. The plot progresses from a simple trip to more complex and disturbing developments involving plots to break up the main couple, family fights, and illicit affairs. Rachel and Nick are coming to Singapore to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding, where Nick will be the best man and which all of Singapore will be crazy about. However, despite being together for a year, Nick hasn’t told his parents about Rachel. But even worse, he hasn’t told Rachel about his family, which leads to obvious complications. In addition, there is a plot twist involving Rachel’s background that adds a poignant piece to the story and will have further repercussions.

The book is not without its faults. The main male protagonist, Nicholas, was rather boring, and both him and his girlfriend were not the most interesting couple in the book. The narrative can get too caught up in superlatives, especially concerning physical appearances. For instance, almost all the main male and female characters are exceedingly handsome or exquisite beauties. On the other hand, Rachel’s Singaporean best friend, while also wealthy, belongs to a different class – nouveau riche – and her parents and brothers are all short, and the latter dark-complexioned. While the book is described as a satirical parody of wealthy Asians, I found that at times it was quite serious and seemed to have a reverential tone towards its characters. And the sheer vapidity was quite overwhelming in a few parts, such as the wedding of Nicholas’ best friend and a local supermodel.

Despite its flaws, Crazy Rich Asians was an exciting read that turned out to be a guilty pleasure and more.

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.

Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).

Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.

Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.

The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.
As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.

While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.

I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.

As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.

Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.

I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.