Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fruit of the Month Club XIV

This is a mandarin orange - no, they don’t all come in cans - and a Thai honey mandarin orange, at that. If you are lucky enough to come across any fruit in your supermarket that begins with “Thai honey” (we’ve seen mangoes, mandarin oranges, pomelos, etc.) please just buy it. It’ll be the best fruit you’ve ever tasted.

Mandarin oranges are not particularly in season here right now, but I’m still thinking back to our Bangkok trip earlier this summer. One hot, muggy afternoon, we walked off the ferry into the sweetest piquant orange smell you can possibly imagine. A teenage girl at a small stand was juicing piles of ripe mandarin oranges and chilling bottles of the fresh tangerine-colored juice.

Wrapped in the heady smell of the oranges, we were compelled to buy a couple of bottles. A few baht seemed a small price to pay for the one of the most refreshing juices we’ve ever had.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Last on the List

On the other end of the cultural spectrum (though equally high in quality), last night’s entertainment was opening night of the movie WALL-E. Yes, Pixar’s latest blockbuster began showing in Singapore on August 28, two full months after its opening day in the US.

There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about pirated movies, but picture this: You’re a Singaporean with ready access to American TV and the Internet. For a solid month before WALL-E’s “scheduled opening date,” you see the ads, the media coverage, the ecstatic reviews: WALL-E is fantastic. WALL-E is cute. WALL-E is a must-see. Accidentally or not, you’re a victim of the studio’s no-holds-barred marketing campaign to attach this movie to your brain.

So, naturally, when that promised opening date rolls around, you check your movie theater listings for the first showing. But what do you find? Nothing. Maybe a TBA listing in the “films coming soon,” if you’re lucky.

You’d think in these modern times, someone could just FedEx all the film reels out to theaters on the same day (or close to it). But instead, Singapore is often last on the list, with films opening months after the US and other Western countries have seen and forgotten them.

If that doesn’t create a market for pirated movies, I don’t know what does. While the big studios have been busy self-righteously speaking out against pirating, I wonder if it ever occurs to them that they helped set up the whole system in the first place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Raffles, Hallucinating

So much is going on in downtown Singapore: there are museum exhibits, dance performances, symphony concerts in the botanic gardens, hundreds of clubs with music in every style imaginable, and theater events. And that’s just in a typical weekend. But we live in the suburbs, and too often we forget to go into town to for a dose of the arts.

It took a nudge from a French friend to send us to our first Singaporean play: a rather avant-garde rendition of Stamford Raffles’ last hallucinatory hours. Though Raffles has a prominent statue on the bay and is a well-known name here, Singapore has understandably had a somewhat conflicted opinion of the British colonialist.

So rather than a Raffles reflecting on his successes, we watched a Raffles haunted by past memories - and hamstrung between a love for the exotic jungle-ness of Singapore and a rigid desire for progress. (If this sounds similar to present-day Singapore, you got the Singaporean playwright’s point.)

Feverishly imagining the lure of the rainforest, Raffles finds his bedroom invaded by a poetry-spouting, sprite-like rafflesia bloom, which tempts him to return Singapore to its natural state. At least, that’s what we deciphered from the cryptic poetry. Raffles was the discoverer of the beautiful rafflesia (pictured at left), which is not only the world’s largest flower but also a parasitic plant whose open center reportedly smells like a decaying corpse.

The only thing that seems to frighten the rafflesia away, though, is even more upsetting to Raffles: a living copy of the statue that today stands in his memory. “Come to the future with me,” says the statue. “You’ll like it! You have a statue, a hotel, a luxury airline class!”

Living in Singapore, we could fully appreciate the symbolism as the flower and the statue tried to throttle each other, and we could laugh at many of the in-jokes (though we missed a few Bahasa phrases that most of the audience found hilarious). And we enjoyed the international casting, which we hardly ever see in the US: an actor originally from Mumbai was the perfect Raffles, and his statue was played, to great effect, by a Singaporean.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

5 Words or Less

At a recent book-club gathering, one of our compatriots was challenged to summarize in 5 words what he’d learned from living abroad (and specifically in Singapore). He came up with:
        People same, food better, lah!

It’s so true; though we’ve found that people share commonalities across the world, it has to be said: some places just have more exciting food.

But Dennis’s pithy summary reminded me of several unusual notices we’ve seen recently in Singapore, all communicated in 5 words or less. Here’s a sampling:

On a hawker menu (as an enticement or a warning, depending on your tastes):
        Contains octopus - very chewy!

In an ad for a face cream for which I could unfortunately be the spokesmodel:
        Guaranteed pinkness in 1 minute!

And the best, at a mall McDonald’s sometimes overrun by students:
        Please refrain from studying here!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Watching the Games from Singapore

Several friends from the US have expressed surprise that we didn’t make plans to watch the Olympics in Beijing this year. True, we’re closer to the Olympics than we’d be if we were still in New Jersey. But we’re at the equator, whereas Beijing is up around the latitude of Philadelphia. So it’s not exactly a quick trip.

Plus, by the time we got our visas approved, the Olympics would most likely already be taking place . . . in Vancouver. (The problematic visa restrictions, incidentally, are not just for Beijing; a number of Joey’s colleagues have had trouble even getting into Shanghai for business trips.)

And we’ve seen Beijing already, with its dust and haze and noise and construction and ancient structures and creative new architecture. From what we’ve heard, it’s already much different from what we saw less than a year ago. But would we get a better sense of Beijing’s character by going there during the Olympics? I doubt it. Not with the disappearance of so many hutongs - and, according to all the press, the artificially revamped manners of its residents.

That said, being able to watch the Olympics live, in your own time zone, is a beautiful thing. And while we do miss the ubiquitous trumpet fanfare that accompanied the NBC coverage in the US, here in Singapore we get to see parts of the Olympics we’d never seen before (read: parts in which no Americans are participating). I just don’t remember Bob Costas covering sports like archery, shooting, judo, fencing, or badminton in depth. And yet all of these are surprisingly compelling – and sometimes spectacular – competitions to watch.

It’s also interesting to cheer on two countries instead of one. Of the 204 countries parading through the Bird’s Nest last Friday night, the two we were most interested in could hardly be more different. The US, of course, showed up with hordes of athletes confident of winning piles of medals. Singapore showed up with a couple dozen athletes competing in six sports – and hoping, with a bit of luck, to bring Singapore its second Olympic medal, ever. And what’s Singapore’s best shot at such an honor? Another sport you’re not likely to see too often on your nightly highlight reel: table tennis (that’s ping pong, to you).

Edit: They did it! Singapore squeezed past Korea to make it to the final of the women’s team table-tennis event. They were flattened by China in the end, unsurprisingly, but their efforts secured the silver medal for an ecstatic Singapore.