Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Four Banquets And Some Statistics

Even though the essay had been handed in and the big East Asia event had come to a successful close, with school deadlines looming, I couldn’t relax just yet, for I still had quite a bit on my plate to tackle. Yeah, it was time for some good food. What did you think I was referring to?

Sunday morning saw us recovering from the festivities of the previous night over a nice pub lunch at the Coach and Horses on Ray Street in Clerkenwell. The logo of the establishment featured a giant pumpkin and four miserable mice, and the blur sotong that I was, I failed to grasp the reference to Cinderella. So, the pumpkin transformed into the carriage, and the mice into the horses. But where were the lizards?

I had the fish pie, which proved very enjoyable, and then a nice cup of brewed coffee. The interior decoration reminded the three of us of our time in Brussels, especially when we spotted the Leffe on tap. But the prices were a wee bit high, and we felt that perhaps a single visit might be enough. Our waiter, however, who was clearly continental, seemed a little too desperate in asking us repeatedly if we would return to dine again.

Monday evening found me with a friend from class at the Ultimate Burger on New Oxford Street, which I had passed by so often when walking back to the hall from places downtown. We arrived there, starved after a long day of work, and ordered the Barbecue Burger for me, and the Smokey Mountain Burger for her, complete with a nice side of Beef Chili Fries and Coleslaw. A divine chocolate profiterole cake completed the repertoire.

But was I greedy? For while the Ultimate Burger certainly proved ultimate in taste and ultimate in satisfaction, it didn’t seem ultimate in volume. Back at the hall, within a couple of hours, I began dreaming of having a friendly and sizzling roti prata dengan bawang dan telur, plus a nice mug of teh tarik. Times like these are difficult to bear.

The only way to get out of this food misery was to convene a session of the Monday Night Dining Club on Tuesday. The irony isn’t lost on me. Perhaps one day I’ll drop the Monday tag. In any case, we ventured to Old Street in the east, which lies on the border between the boroughs of Hackney and Islington. There’s an interesting agglomeration of Vietnamese eateries there, but we dipped into Cây Tre, which was located closest to the Tube station.

Now, I don’t get this. What is it with Asian restaurants in the West that they must often combine good food with surly, sulky service? Why cannot the setting be made more upscale, with a few smiles added in? You never feel comfortable enough to sit back for a long and leisurely evening of chat. It’s something which still eludes me.

So, we were consigned to an airless basement room, which filled up rather quickly with other diners, including a pair of ladies next to us who ordered bowls of pho, a bottle of red wine, and then puffed the night away loudly and merrily.

“I don’t really care about the service, as long as there’s good food,” said one of my dining companions. And on that, I wouldn’t really disagree with her. We were presented with an impressively lengthy menu, and I had much better luck than her in picking dishes I liked – starting with the Banh Goi (I forget what the correct diacritical marks are), a set of four crispy dumplings, and then followed by a bowl of the campfire sirloin steak, served with a dramatic burning fire, which made me worry just for a while about the fire hazard it posed. It really was a very crowded basement, and we were seated furthest away from the narrow exit.

I also shared the Bánh xèo with my hapless friend, termed a Vietnamese pizza, which came with an egg-infused covering, with prawns, chicken and vegetable bits inside. And there was dessert too – a delightful plate of fried banana fritters. Think Vietnamese goreng pisang, with lots of sweet and sticky syrup. I left the place a very happy man indeed, yet slightly worried, for I had a presentation the following morning, and quite a bit of work yet finished.

After eating my way through London over the past few days, it was a welcome treat when the Swinger, known in other circles as the Celebrity Chef, invited me and a couple of other hall mates to a home-cooked bak kut teh meal at the London House buttery earlier this evening. His skills are pretty amazing. Unexpectedly, there was some you char kway, courtesy of the Singapore Doctor, fresh from a trip to Chinatown. Although, at one pound per strip, it was rather expensive. Or perhaps, he just got ketoked pretty badly.

The presentation I gave in class – a nail-bitingly riveting exposition on the development of Singapore’s Knowledge-Based Economy – is now over. The statistics lecture which followed later, infused with wonderful concepts such as Bivariate and Multivariate Regression, Collinearity, Gauss-Markov Theorem, Homo- and Heteroscedasticity, was an exercise in patient endurance. Anyone has any remote idea what they could all mean? I emerged with my hair still dark, my sanity intact, but my head hurting badly.

I trundled back to Goodenough College, just as the rain began pouring down like cold piercing shards. But my mind was elsewhere. For I was wrestling intensely with the difficult decision of whether to head straight to the treadmill or to bed.

Yet it was patently clear. There was only one thing, one honourable thing to do...

A Day At The Docks

I joined the Singapore Lawyer, also known in some circles as the SSG, for a nice long lunch and walkabout around St Katherine Docks on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. It’s a charming redevelopment area sited to the east of the city, near to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, complete with a marina, hotels and other businesses and a batch of restaurants.

“For over a thousand years the site of St Katharine Docks has been a focus of commerce and human endeavour,” we’re reliably informed by the development’s website. The history, which one can read about, is certainly impressive, full of change and convulsions. But more immediate was the relaxed atmosphere which the place afforded, with a quiet and calm demeanour – yachts and motorcrafts moored silently, a white swan gliding elegantly by, and few souls around. Certainly a place that doesn’t seem archetypically London.

We had lunch at the pizza and pasta restaurant in the Dickens Inn, a well-restored former spice warehouse, but now curiously Alpine-looking, with its dark wooden beams. Having been denied the Tagliatelli Fruit D’Mare, which she pounced upon, I went instead for the Tagliatelli Carbonara, savouring the food and the wine, the company of a good friend, and the lovely view of the Tower Bridge, which loomed large out of the window.

We walked across the Thames later to check out Butler’s Wharf on the other side, buffeted by a blustery and cold wind, yet strangely stimulating, for it reminded us of the thrills to be had in London – this great city that we are calling home for this one year. Will it be home for even longer? Will the attractions and allure of this amazing metropolis be with either of us for longer?

We soon returned to St Katherine Docks. Located next to the water’s edge was a Starbucks outlet, where we ended our afternoon. It was housed within an interesting free-standing structure, and it was unfortunate I didn’t get an image of it. For it was entirely round, with tall columns supporting the dome. What could it be called?

“It’s a cupola,” I ventured, a little unconvincingly.

“No, it’s a gazebo,” she countered.

“But a gazebo is surely seen only in gardens?” And I would imagine as well that they were usually made of metal.

“Maybe it’s a rotunda,” she said. And we left it at that.

But as we were about to step in for our skinny latte and mocha frappuccino, I noticed a memorial slab on the doorway, which read that the structure had been erected in 1977 in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee.

And what was it called? A coronarium. Constructed on the site of the former Church of St Katherine.

But now it’s a Starbucks. What a difference thirty years make.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Making Merry In A Hall Of Red

In the end, East Asia Night 2007 turned out to be a rollicking and resounding success. We certainly managed to pull it off well. The event went off without a hitch, everyone seemed happy, and the food – mercifully – was just enough. I think it’s clear everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

We started with a Coffee Morning session at William Goodenough House, the other main residential building of Goodenough College, located a minute’s walk from London House, where I live. A variety of breakfast items from across East Asia, including carrot cake (!) was available. I fortified myself with that, plus a few Japanese rice crisps and a nice cup of tea, for a long day lay ahead.

We had barely any time to rest, with much work yet to be done in the Great Hall in London House, venue for the evening’s revelry and merriment. We had planned to prepare the table settings for each of our 15 tables, and I learnt at first hand what hard work it was, swiftly yet delicately laying out the individual cutlery and crockery pieces. And after some final decorations, here’s what we came up with:

As the clock began to move towards six o’clock, there seemed to be a million things still to do, but very soon, the first of our guests began streaming in, first to the Large Common Room, where the pre-dinner entertainment was taking place, and then into the Great Hall itself. I found myself a virtual odd job labourer that day – setting up the hall, taking the photos, preparing the prizes, manning the sound console at times, and even helping out in the food service.

Many remarked that they found themselves in the right mood when they stepped in and noticed the festive decorations. I would certainly agree. The Singapore Doctor, who chaired the event, told the Director of the College that we had to cover the portraits of past directors and governors with red decorative paper, because it was apparently bad luck during Chinese New Year to be seen in the midst of dead people’s faces. But because a few of the august individuals were still alive, he added that we wanted only one director to be present that evening.

Talking about knowing how to smoke and suck up at the same time : )

But he proved outstanding not only on the stage through the evening, but also in providing steady and calm steering during the months of preparations prior to that. It was also good working with the rest of the gang here, and I think everyone within the inner core clicked well together, proving adapt at their respective tasks. I had a few from my class who were there, and it would have been neat if there were more of them around.

In short, what a wonderful night it was. I could go on and describe, in minute detail, what happened. But I think this time I shall let the images of this most exciting and remarkable evening speak for themselves.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

From the Essay to the East Asia Evening

It’s been a frenetic past couple of days. On Friday, I submitted my essay for the Globalization and Global Governance course – a piece of work that constitutes 50 percent of the grade for this module. The question I picked focused on International Organizations and the degree of autonomy they have within the current international political system, which is still dominated by nation-states. This is, naturally, an exceptionally sexy topic, invigourating, exhilarating, and one which has kept me up for many late nights this past week…

But the past days have also seen the run-up to the grand East Asia Night 2007, which I mentioned in an earlier posting. It’s being organized by a core group of Singaporeans and Malaysians in the hall, with very helpful contributions from representatives from Hong Kong, Japan and a couple of other places. We marketed our event to members of the Goodenough College and their guests. Surpassing our expectations, we managed to sell all our tickets well ahead of time. So it’s going to be full house on Saturday evening.

We spent much Thursday night going through our plans in great detail and then much of last night and even early this morning setting up the Great Hall, getting it ready for the big event tonight. It was a curious exercise, with shades of déjà vu. I mean, surely only Singaporeans of a certain ilk would obsess over an “admin programme”? But at least this was over bak kwa and wine in my room – a much nicer setting than back in the office.

There were many issues go discuss – the decorations, the food, the welcoming souvenirs, the photography and sound, the pre-event entertainment, the lucky draw prizes, the manpower allocation, and so forth. Ghosts of previous events such as Dinner and Dances started to swirl around the room. But Singaporeans have the requite anality to surmount any difficulty.

So, we gathered on Friday evening to begin our preparations in the Great Hall. It was back-breaking hard work shifting the ancient wooden furniture around, and decorating the place. But when all was done, I think we managed to acquit ourselves pretty well. The setting looks rather festive now, bedecked in bright red. I think the ladies who conceptualized the decorative scheme, and who then spent hours on end producing the materials, should certainly be applauded. I would never have had the creativity to come up with those ideas. All I could lend was some muscle in fixing things up.

As I write this, the set up is nearly done. But of course this is still the easy part. This is the calm before the storm. In a few hours time, our guests – including the Director of the College – will start streaming in, expecting a night of jollity and fun. Will it be a success? Will there be any snafus? Will everyone have a good time? And – most importantly – will the food run out???

Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Framing Singapore

I had the first meeting yesterday afternoon with my dissertation supervisor. It was brief, sharp and business-like, reflecting the person that she is. For anyone even remotely interested in what my topic is, I plan to examine how the mainstream British print media covers Singapore news, using the tool of frames analysis. What are the major scripts, schemas or storylines deployed by titles such as The Guardian, The Times or The Daily Telegraph when reporting on developments from the country?

I’m not sure if this is something I can pull off successfully. It’s certainly an area I’m interested in. But one thing is certain – the volume of coverage annually is not expected to be heavy. Furthermore, it might be difficult justifying the real-world public policy implications of the findings. I may have to look for academic justification instead. Whatever the case, the ride ahead looks uncertain at this stage.

We’re required to craft a 10,000 word dissertation. After having coughed up two previous works, one at 15,000 words, and the other at 20,000 words, this seems much less painful, surely? I doubt I will find myself overwhelmed with the research and data. But at this stage, it really is too early to tell. I’ll truly start worrying about this in the summer.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

This Time It's Mexican

My Monday Night Dining Club gathered this evening at Mestizo, an upscale Mexican restaurant along Hampstead Road in Euston. Sure, it was Tuesday, not Monday. But that was not reason enough for us to turn down the opportunity to try some good Latin American cuisine. For it had been some time since we last gathered.

We had been looking forward excitedly and expectantly to this outing. And it was good to get there, especially after an earlier cancellation. We’ve all heard glowing accounts of Mestizo, and the reviews on-line were also rather positive. Time Out London describes it as a “friendly little place” and “a true rarity”.

That was certainly how I felt. The menu, replete with lots of exotic-sounding dishes, can be accessed here. We started with some empanadas to share, and then I had the pabellon criollo, comprising shredded beef marinated in pepper sauce, spiced with onions, garlic and sweet chiles, and served with rice and beans. To end – a serving of the buñuelos, crispy dough fritters with sugery powder on top of it.

It was delectable. My only gripe was that the portions were too small. Having entered the restaurant pretty starved, I was looking forward to devouring huge volumes. But this ain’t no el-Cheapo Tex-Mex hangout, the likes of which I was more familiar with from my time in the US. I guess they had to maintain a certain level of class, even if that meant that diners had to leave hungry.

But I certainly didn’t leave unhappy. For what was important, surely, wasn’t the food, but rather the chance to sit down with friends to chat, to gossip, to catch up. I treasure such moments. And when one of them suddenly asked, “Is Singapore a dictatorship?”, the dinner truly became interesting.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

On The First Day Of The New Year

I really didn’t expect to get an ang pow in London over Chinese New Year this year, so it was certainly a nice surprise and a welcome gesture. We were gathering in the Swinger’s dorm room, and towards the end, with a unexpected flourish, the red packets were brandished suddenly. Just for a while, home didn't feel that far away.

Sunday marked not only the first day of the Year of the Pig, but also the start of East Asia Week 2007 in the hall. It’s a series of celebratory events which a few of us are helping to organize in conjunction with the Lunar New Year. Earlier, we had a cooking demonstration, courtesy of master chef, the Swinger – how does he find time to cook, to study and to swing? – and then a screening in the evening of “Be With Me”, the most recent film by Singaporean director Eric Khoo.

Coming up later in the week are two more movie screenings, a port talk on Chinese ceramics, a possible children’s event and, to round it off, a grand East Asian Cultural Night on Saturday. I really hope it will turn out well. I hope the entertainment items lined up will take place without a hitch. Most of all, given my usual fixation, I hope that the food doesn’t run out. We don’t want our participants going away hungry and angry.

But back to “Be With Me”. It’s a movie which I first saw on the big screen in Singapore before coming to London. And I was instantly transfixed. The themes of love and loneliness and a lingering yearning is something we can all understand easily, wherever we come from. We can't always get what we want, can we? We have to deal with hurt, with rejection, with betrayal. And despite that, we have to continue living on, heading into the next day. For there really is no other way.

So, for me at least, it was a very touching movie. I find it amazing how Eric Khoo manages brilliantly to convey so much through what essentially is a silent movie, with hardly any dialogue, and yet without the use as well of a dominant music soundtrack. And for these and other reasons, I think it’s one of the few Singapore films that can travel international successfully.

I have a passing interest in this area, having been involved earlier in the establishment in the Singapore Film Commission. Later, while working at the Embassy in Washington, one of the public diplomacy projects I wanted to set up was to organize public screenings of Singapore films. But I didn't pull it off. One main problem was that there was only a small selection of local works available, especially those which could speak to international audiences.

To be sure, we do have some titles, especially those in Mandarin from Raintree Pictures, which have done well throughout East Asia. But many others, with their use of Singlish and local dialects, and with their insular themes – while they may touch Singaporeans intimately, they are essentially alien to those abroad. Perhaps this is one dilemma in the development of a national cinema – the tension between international acceptance and local relevance.

With time, however, and with lots of experimentation, I think we will one day have a good slate of Singapore films which will deal with more universal themes, even while retaining a distinctive local voice, and which will therefore be better able to represent the country. And with time, the overall production quality should also improve. In this effort, films such as “Be With Me” have set a good standard. It’s subtle and it’s minimalist, but it leaves a profound impact.

After Dinner Thoughts

As I write this, we’ve just crossed into the Year of the Pig. Happy Lunar New Year to all who are reading this. My best wishes to everyone. What will this year bring? According to that most authoritative source, thelondonpaper, pigs can expect quite a bit of excitement in the months ahead: “This is your year and boy, does it show! Lucky in romance, wealth and health, this will be one of those years you’ll remember for a long time.”

Bah. What about the others?

We had a nice reunion dinner at our basement buttery earlier, with each preparing a dish or two. My lo hei experiment was successful, and I managed to get some fresh carrots from the local Waitrose to add to the available ingredients, along with a kitchen grater. The extra sashimi slices came courtesy of resident pig the Singapore Doctor. There was duck, pai guat soup, vegetables and mushrooms, eggs and ribs. A wonderful feast, and I’m very grateful, very glad to be here now amidst such good company.

There’s going to be a huge Chinese New Year parade in Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square on Sunday. But much as I would like to be out there, enjoying the festivities, I shall remain ensconced in my room instead, brooding, brows furrowed, hunched over the laptop, furiously procrastinating over an essay due some days later. I hope not to remain in seclusion for too long.

Happy New Year!

*Image courtesy of HM's blog*

Friday, February 16, 2007

I Won't Watch This During The Seventh Month

When I entered the Fortune Theatre on Russell Street in London’s theatre district earlier this evening, I was somewhat doubtful that a ghost story could be performed successfully on stage. It’s not a murder mystery, where you sit there at the edge of your seats, awaiting the denouement. It’s not a movie, where the judicious use of camera angles and special effects could transform you magically to a land of dread. Instead, with the rest of the audience, you know that the ghost will appear sooner or later, and you know that you ought to be scared.

So, was I? Well, not really. At times, the ghost was – as we say in Singapore – very cartoon, very drama. But that did not detract from a most enjoyable night out,

The Sister and I were at a performance of The Woman In Black, after a nice dinner at La Ballerina on Bow Street. Adapted from the horror novel by Susan Hill, the play first took up residence at the Fortune Theatre in 1989, but it was only in recent months that I had heard increasing chatter about what an excellent production it was.

The staging is minimalist. We have only two principal actors, who, between the both of them, play up to half a dozen characters. Of course, there’s the shadowy third character – the eponymous Woman In Black, who floats across the stage, clad in drab black, with her ghastly wasted face just visible enough. There’s no acknowledgement in the programme guide of the actress who plays her, which makes it all the more ridiculously mysterious.

When the curtain rises in the beginning, we see an old lawyer, Arthur Kipps, who has hired an unnamed young actor to help him retell the horrifying events of decades ago, when he was sent by his company to the desolate town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of one of their clients, the reclusive Mrs Alice Drablow. Little is known of her, except that she lived in a house by the coast, Eel Marsh, accessible only during low tide via a sandy causeway. But perhaps the townsfolk did know quite a bit. Except that they were distinctly reluctant to say more, as Arthur Kipps found out rather quickly.

And as he stayed there in the succeeding days, going through her personal papers, he endures a terrifying sequence of events – strange noises and frightening hauntings by the Woman in Black. Slowly, he pieces the story together, and discovers that the ghost is in fact the dead sister of Mrs Drablow, and every appearance of the Woman In Black would foreshadow the death of a child somewhere, as she takes revenge on the world, after she, too, lost her child to an unfortunate accident. The tragedy, of course, is that the spirit transcends time and space, even appearing after Arthur Kipps leaves Crythin Gifford and starts a family with his beloved Stella. So, it takes little imagination to figure out what happens next.

This was a pretty gripping performance, and you do wonder sometimes how the actors manage to sustain the emotions displayed, night after night, to different audiences. Surely, at some point, it becomes a tedious chore. But if they felt the tiredness, they certainly didn’t show it. It was a good show. And I found it fun, but perhaps not scary enough.

Gold Mine vs Four Seasons

The verdict is in. For me, at least, any lingering doubts have been cleared. We had been wondering earlier how the Chinese roast duck at the Gold Mine restaurant would compare with what’s offered at old favourite the Four Seasons barely a few doors away on the same side of Queensway. Different views prevailed. Insistent voices were heard. The only was to settle the issue was to venture out together for a judicial meal.

We headed there, all six of us, on a cool Thursday evening. And for those of us new to Gold Mine, we noticed that it bore more than a passing resemblance to the Four Seasons, even in terms of its décor and signage. But it was obviously a much newer restaurant. We ordered the roast duck, accompanied by quite a few other dishes, including a bowl of soup that came compliments of the chef.

It was definitely a satisfying experience, but fully three of us concluded – to the disappointment of at least one other – that the roast duck at Four Seasons was slightly better. I felt the Gold Mine duck lacked a certain taste to it. The other two were more ambivalent, I recall. But no worries. I stand ready anytime to go try the duck at the Four Seasons again, and then to compare it once more with Gold Mine. I stand ready to do this over and over again. For I can easily imagine an extended season of duck eating lasting me well into the summer. Heh.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

London Fashion Week

This week sees London Fashion Week, held twice a year, where the top designers and fashion houses come out parading their latest works of haute coutre. It’s not something normally up my alley, but my hall neighbour the Singapore Doctor, who’s exceptionally well-connected, managed to snag a couple of tickets to an Autumn/Winter 2007 presentation by Ashley Isham.

We wended our way to a makeshift British Fashion Council stage erected outside the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, and, after an interminable wait, punctuated by untidy helpings of mini salmon bagels and blueberry muffins, we were ushered into the catwalk area – pardon my ignorance of fashion terms – where we assumed our exalted backrow seats.

The lights dimmed dramatically, the music came on, and the models began sashaying out, one after the other, in costumes that reeked strongly of bright colours, with lots of red and green. I guess they were okay; I won’t be wearing them, obviously. And I found myself more disturbed by how the girls on stage looked.

Yes, they were girls, not ladies. They couldn’t have been a year older than 17 or 18, although many of them looked even younger. There was this pale and wan appearance to each of them, as though none had eaten anything for more than week, surviving instead on a diet of water and cigarettes, and maybe a bit of the white powdery stuff as well. Virtually all of them looked like nothing more than skin and bones. The make-up made them seem even more ashen. It wasn’t a very pretty sight. I wondered if any of them might faint on stage.

Over the past few weeks, the British media has been seized by stories of so-called Size Zero models – anorexic girls weighing barely anything who presented a danger to impressionable youngsters and to themselves. But at the end of the brief 20 minute presentation, the designer emerged, flanked by two of his models, and wearing a T-shirt which proclaimed, on the front, “I’m Size 00”, and defiantly on the back, “So What?”

Although I had heard of the label, I had no idea that Ashley Isham was Singaporean. For some reason, I figured he must have been Malaysian. So it’s good, surely, that someone from home has achieved some degree of fame over here? His creations have a certain sense of elegance. But do the more fashionably-inclined individuals out there really like his designs? I don’t know.

This was my first fashion show. I can’t say much for what I saw on stage. I think I had more fun looking at the audience members, all the luvvies and fashionistas - Oh, Dahling, how lovely to see you again! Muah! Muah! – including several stern looking mature ladies perched on the front row who bore more than a passing resemblance to the Devil who wore Prada.

I’m the antithesis of coolness. Thus it was nice to be able to come attend an event such as this. There were quite a few TV cameras around. So catch me soon on Fashion TV.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

From Manchester Square to Regent Street

The Wallace Collection is surely one of the artistic gems of London. Stepping out of the Bond Street Tube Station, in the heart of the shopping district, I walked past James Street, with its many little eateries, onto the quieter Manchester Square, a leafy area where Hertford House – site of the Wallace Collection – is located.

There I met up with the Sister. But before we could partake in the art, we had to take care of the palate. So we went straight to the Wallace Restaurant, a central tearoom and French-styled restaurant under a sunlight sky. The setting was rather lovely. I ordered a bowl of onion soup and a tartine with white crab and tarragon dressing, and ended with a nice cup of café latte disguised as a cappuccino. But the experience was marred slightly right at the start, when they said that they didn’t serve Diet Coke, nor any other sodas. I don't get it - why do they need to be so atas?

So onwards to the art. The Wallace Collection contains rich holdings of medieval European and oriental armour, and also a wide range of French paintings and decorative items. But I found myself drawn more to its smaller, yet more pleasing Flemish collection – folks such as Frans Hals, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch. British masterpieces from Reynolds and Gainsborough were also well represented.

We wandered up to a large upstairs hall, where we chanced upon two ladies harpists, who proceeded to perform a selection of pieces from modern musicals, and with quite a few wrong notes. In an adjoining room was an exhibition of works now reattributed to Rembrant, after years of uncertainty about their provenance.

The Wallace Collection was bequeathed to the nation towards the end of the 19th century, with the assembly of artworks having been acquired by generations of the aristocratic Hertford family. Entrance now is free to all, and I wonder how the current trustees and management of the Collection manage to fund its operations. Perhaps they have a large fat trust upon which to tap. Meanwhile, members of the public get to benefit from the wonderful accessibility thereby afforded.

After a drink or two with a friend from the hall at the Moët Café in nearby Selfridges, I joined the Sister and the Brother in Law for a sukiyaki dinner at Mitsukoshi Restaurant along Regent Street near Piccadilly Circus. It was definitely very satisfying, and I had two full bowls of rice. But looking at the large sukiyaki pot, the shape somehow reminded me of a large bowl of fish head curry, brimming with asam juices. I couldn't help but sigh wistfully, for that was another dish from home which I miss a lot. What am I going to do?


I took some time out earlier today, Tuesday, to head down to John Lewis on Oxford Street to get a few items for my room. What an afternoon. Think that shopping in central London on a weekday afternoon in winter would be painless, with sidewalks clear, weather cool, and nerves calm? Well, think again.

Instead, it seemed as though half of London was out in force today. But then again, perhaps many of them were tourists. [For this one year, at least, I consider myself a Londoner!] And they say that real Londoners shop in places like Sloan Square. Only the visitors head to Oxford Street, which may explain the profusion of souvenir stands. In my defence, Oxford Street is within walking distance of my hall.

But I digress. What worries me is the sheer magnitude of the human traffic in London. I know this is a refrain I’ve sounded before – that this city is crowded, that it is bursting beyond its seams, that the infrastructure here seems incapable of supporting the millions who call this place home. I think about that most often when my nose is pressed against the train window on the Piccadilly line Tube during rush hour. London is a stupendously exciting city. But surely there comes a point beyond which the number of individuals here, far from adding to the attractiveness of the city, begin to impact upon it negatively?

I’m not certain if London will be as fun to visit or to live in a few years for now. Perhaps this is the price to pay for being a world city, without the resources to properly back it up. The awarding of the Olympics to London for 2012 should, with hope, help to stimulate massive public investment in critical areas such as roads and transportation. With good planning, there is no reason why the city cannot continue to draw more people in, and comfortably too.

I write this barely a few days after the government in Singapore announced that they were targeting an eventual population of 6.5 million for the city state. Those of us know come from Singapore and who know Singapore would shudder instinctively at the thought. Sure, London seems far more crowded. And it probably is. But residents here have the option of escaping beyond the M25 into the home counties. We don’t have that option in Singapore.

How is it going to play out? How will the influx of foreigners – and let’s face it, the growth will come mainly through foreign inflows – be best managed, without destabilizing the local population?

But I know there’s no turning back. The only way to survive is to grow.

Monday, February 12, 2007

A Gay Affair

Dinner this evening with the Sister at The Gay Hussar, an old institution near Soho Square in London specializing in Hungarian cuisine. Stepping into the restaurant, you feel as though you’ve entered a time at least a generation away. There was an old world atmosphere, with thick wood panelling, volumes of books, and even a sword on display. Displayed on the walls were also caricature portraits of assorted politicians and figures from the glitterati of London.

But you know me. I wasn’t there for aesthetic reasons. No, I wanted to try some authentic Hungarian food instead. Having never been to the country, this was as close as it gets. I’ve also gotten to know an American in class who’s of Hungarian descent, and she had been telling me about some of the national dishes she used to eat when she was young.

I began with a nice bowl of beef goulash, probably as typically Hungarian as you get, while the Sister experimented with fried mushrooms with tartare sauce. I then had the Cigány Gyors Tál, a scrumptious gypsy dish comprising a pork medallion with bacon, onions, potatoes and paprika. And this was followed by a layered gateau with traces of liquer. All in all, it was very nice and very satisfying, especially on a cold and rainy evening such as today.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Family and Food

The Sister is in town again, this time accompanying the Brother in Law, who’s in London to attend a conference. They will be here throughout the coming week, which coincides pretty neatly with my Reading Week, or mid term break.

It marks the run up also to Chinese New Year, and I’m especially grateful to have family around. I met her today for Sunday dim sum lunch at Royal China, and then headed back to her hotel where a bag of festive goodies from home awaited me. There was a consignment of bak kwa, plus an assortment of love letters, pineapple tarts and nonya kueh. Yum.

I had her bring over a couple of packs of lo hei too, complete with the necessary sauces. The few of us in the hall will try to rustle up a simple reunion dinner this weekend, and I’m glad to be able to supply the lo hei. We’ll need to get some extra ingredients, such as carrots and slices of yu sheng.

That’s the easy bit. But does anyone remember the exact wordings for the Incantation of the Lo Hei, as I call it, that we need to recite when preparing the dish at the beginning of the meal? Answers please! And quickly too!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Snow, Parliament and Kiasu

Woke up yesterday and found London covered in snow again. The precipitation volume this time was heavier than the first dusting two weeks ago, but part of it fell in the form of sleet and rain later in the day. By the evening, the white blanket was mostly gone, leaving behind memories of happy smiles as well as weary frowns, given the inevitable problems the snow caused to transportation within the city. Despite the freezing weather, I had to head out early for a visit to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. A few us of from my British Government and Politics course were there to witness a live session in the House of Commons. I last toured the place in the summer of 2003, when both the chambers of the Commons and the Lords were opened up during the legislative recess. This time round, however, I was up on the visitors' gallery.

I’m still struck by how small the chamber actually is. It makes for perfect close-quarter political combat. Despite that, the sitting was only sparsely attended. We saw one devoted to Business Questions – a regular session in which the Leader of the Commons, a ministerial position currently held by Jack Straw, introduced the coming business agenda for the House.

But that served merely as the prelude for an hour long debate which came across as a near equivalent of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Members from both sides of the aisle were able to raise any question – so long as they presented it something requiring a parliamentary debate. It’s an elaborate and open pretense. The government would never really agree to schedule a debate based purely on calls from individual MPs. In turn, they don’t seriously expect to have their requests heeded.

Instead, the point of the wayang is political theatre. Individual members use this regular forum as a means of getting something onto the parliamentary and public record, to get a mention in the local paper, to raise their profile, and sometimes also to embarrass the government. We heard questions on local issues, on the weather, on proposed reforms to the House of Lords. That’s the whole purpose of Business Questions. It’s not really to discuss the business of Parliament.

We left the chamber and headed to a nearby committee room – the Wellington Room – where we were met by Chris Bryant, a Labour MP from the Rhondda in Wales who was first elected in 2001. He was on hand to field questions on parliamentary procedures. It was quite informative session. Chris Bryant was a pretty open and engaging speaker, and is renowned to be one of the few MPs who have gone public with their homosexuality.


Dinner finally at Kiasu – the new Singapore restaurant on Queensway. We had a chye tow kueh as a starter. The two ladies then had bak chor mee and mee siam, while I went for the Hokkien prawn noodles. Dessert was bubur hitam and bobo chacha. The food at Kiasu is not earth-shatteringly good, but it will do. On the walls were big murals spelling out all the possible fears out there – Kia Mata (scared of policeman), Kia Boo (scared of wife), Kia Si (scared of death), Kia Lor Hor (scared of the rain), Kia Cheng Hu (scared of government) and more. It was all quite ridiculous. And I don't think that Kiasu is a die die must go back kind of place.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Strong Faculty, Weak Food

The faculty dinner that I had blogged about earlier was finally held this evening at the College. This was the third, I think, in a series of five dinners, clustered around different disciplines. Collectively, these dinners see Goodenough College putting on its best, inviting academics and other guests from around London to partake in a formal dinner, balanced suitably by both pre- and post-dinners drinks.

It’s also very old school. We began with grace and continued with polite chatter amidst the candlelight until it was time for coffee and port and a toast to HM The Queen. Thereafter came a speech by the Director of the College, who then introduced the After Dinner Speaker.

My guest for the evening was my lecturer for the Theories and Actors of the Policy Process class last term. He had completed his PhD earlier in Georgetown University, and so we had some fun chatting about our respective experiences of Washington, and also discussing my coming dissertation project. I was glad he accepted the invitation. It’s always nice to be able to see your professors letting their hair down.

I actually found the evening rather enjoyable, despite being seated at the far edge of the corner table and also away from my guest, despite the dubious main course – a rubbery piece of meat, the provenance of which is suspect – and despite an exceptionally awful After Dinner Speaker, who broke all rules for After Dinner Speaking. It wasn’t funny, it didn’t engage, and it certainly sought to provoke. The content was okay. But the setting was wholly out of place.

But my thanks do go to the College. I love it whenever there's a glass of port around.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

At The Home Of The Gunners

Some people I know should be so jealous. Yes, this is a shot from inside Arsenal’s new and most spectacular Emirates Stadium, where I was earlier tonight. A place I wanted fervently to visit since I arrived in London. And here I was. Heh.

Well, OK. So it wasn’t the real thing. Arsenal wasn’t on the pitch. Instead, the stadium played host to an international friendly between Brazil and Lusophone rival Portugal. Yeah…a showdown between greats such as Kaka, Adriano, Gilberto Silva on one side, and Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho on the other. It was pretty amazing. Ronaldinho wasn’t named for the squad this time round. And it's a real shame we no longer have the chance to see Ah Pui Ronaldo in action.

After a nice but hurried dinner at Los Guaduales, a neighbourhood Columbian restaurant on Stroud Green Road, we ventured forth to the Emirates Stadium, situated barely minutes away from the old Highbury ground. The area isn’t exactly the prettiest part of London, with old tenement blocks, dingy shops and quite a few hoodies lurking around.

But when you turn the corner and come face to face with the spanking new complex, bright and silver, entirely incongruous against the dull and drab grey of the surroundings, you know you’re in somewhere special. And the view inside is nothing but impressive. The players come up close to you, yet the capacity was enormous. The crowd of nearly 60,000 this evening was even more than what Singapore’s National Stadium could handle.

So what about the match? I went in pretty ambivalent and agnostic between the two. I guess I had a slight preference for Brazil, and also I hated the yah yah look of Cristiano Ronaldo. But the five time world champions, under new coach Dunga, played dismally. Reports are available here and here. Was it due to the presence of quite a few Team B players? Or that it was just a friendly? Or that they were, in short, just awful?

Portugal certainly had greater possession in the first half, and when the second started, they had switched to attacking the goal post closest to us. Time as well for me, at least, to switch my allegiances. It was good that Simao was brought on as a substitute, for he proceeded to execute a powerful sideways kick of the ball into the net with about fifteen minutes of the game to go. The crowed had hardly settled, when Richardo Carvalho sent a second one into the Brazilian goal. Fantastic.

Final score: Brazil 0, Portugal 2. I had been dreading a boring nil-nil game. Instead, I think we all witnessed quite a bit of expert footballing action. Now, what I need is to catch the Gunners in action soon.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Great Amsterdam Puke of Winter 2007

The trip ended with me having puked my guts out all over the gent’s loo at The Pancake Bakery, leaving a merry mess, and then being barely able to make it back to London in one piece. Yeah…such were the delights of food poisoning. Let’s not speculate on what caused it. I've since recovered from vomitting hell, and through it, I was very glad to have been with five wonderful and supportive friends. Despite what happened, I was happy, in fact, to have spent the weekend in Amsterdam.

But what is it with Amsterdam? I was there almost a full three years ago, en route to Singapore after completing my posting in Washington. And I can recall so vividly how I had to hobble and shuffle around in great pain, for my back condition had deteriorated rapidly over the previous couple of weeks. I even bought myself a walking cane there. Amsterdam was – and remains – such a lovely city. But to suffer two consecutive bouts of ill health in the same place seems like utter carelessness.

The few of us in the hall had been talking for some time about making a trip there. And we each found our calendars free this past weekend. It was truly a rare opportunity for such a big group to be able to travel together. And the time spent was certainly enjoyable, with much of what we chatted about entirely unbloggable, although it did include quite a bit of toilet humour. Enuff said.

The setting made it conducive for a good time. Amsterdam’s a very welcoming, and stress-free city, even though the traffic – trams, cars and bikes – does seem to come at you from all directions. The inner core can be traversed on foot. The many canals present a pretty picture. Virtually everyone speaks English, to the extent that a Dutch classmate of mine remarked that when he was in Amsterdam once, he was exasperated at not being able to find anyone who speaks proper Dutch.

We arrived in the city late on Friday evening, spirits high, and reach our hotel without difficulty. Saturday saw an early start to the day, where we had a frightfully expensive breakfast at Leidseplein, followed by a nice long walk through the main streets in Centrum, the inner core of the city, including the Dam area, where the Nieuwe Kerk and the Koninklijk Paleis were situated. Then came lunch at the Brasserie de Poort, a nice historic establishment next to the Magna Plaza shopping arcade.

We spent much of the afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum. And for me, it was a delightful return after my first visit in 2004. Because I could barely walk on that occasion, at times, I was reduced to plonking myself onto the gallery benches, trying to take everything in. This time round, I had the chance to see up close many of his major masterpieces, including his self-portraits, his famous bedroom piece, and that haunting late work, "Wheat Field With Crows".

There was also a special exhibition titled Vincent Van Gogh and Expressionism – how Van Gogh and his rich, intense portrayals influenced the subsequent generation of Austrian and German expressionists early in the 20th century. It offered a revealing look into how artists in the Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke movements gained inspiration from their Post-Impressionist counterpart and then also applied their own interpretation to their individual renderings. My favourite Franz Marc was represented, unfortunately, but just a simple drawing. Perhaps less than others, he had a clearer artistic voice of his own.

After pre-meal waffles at the local Häagen-Dazs, we gathered over dinner at the Kantjil & de Tijger, a pretty well-known Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table) restaurant in Amsterdam. That’s one of the interesting features of Amsterdam. Owing to colonial ties, rijsttafel is considered a de facto Dutch national dish, similar to how curry is seen as part of the British national cuisine now. And we certainly didn’t leave dissatisfied.

But was this the meal that did me in? The fabulous servings of keropok, gado-gado, mutton rending, sayur lodeh, satay and more? Could they have been the culprit? All I know is that I woke up the following morning feeling like crap. Sunday passed by painfully for me. According to my friends, my face had turned green by the time we were heading back to London. Yet, despite the food scare, my abiding regret was not to have been able to try the pancakes, nor savour the proffertjes, supposedly a local delicacy. What a shame.

Nonetheless, it really was fun to have had the chance to gather with good friends over the weekend. We had a chance to relax and to get to know each other better. I shall remember these moments. I shall certainly recall them fondly. I shall try, however, not to return to Amsterdam too soon. It seems my body can’t function too well over there.

Travel Notes: Amsterdam’s perfect for a weekend break from London. We booked our flights on KLM with STA Travel. Accommodation was secured through Expedia at the Park Plaza Vondel Amsterdam, located at the southern edge of Vondel Park, just outside the city core.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Thoughts While In Belgravia

I spent part of the day today in Belgravia – a posh residential and diplomatic district just south of Hyde Park and Knightsbridge. It’s a place where celebrity sightings are likely, where property prices are astronomical, and where Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Ferraris are highly visible. It is, in short, a lofty world far away from the student digs where I’m in right now.

But it’s not exactly an unfamiliar sort of setting, even though it was the first time I really ventured into the area. For I was visiting the Singapore High Commission on Wilton Crescent, lunching with an old contact there. We were also joined by a colleague of his and by my new MFA friend whom I last met last November.

I was given a nice tour of the chancery, and we lunched as well at the Turk’s Head, a local pub barely a minute’s walk away. And of course, a bit of the talk at the table centred upon my time at our embassy in Washington. It was a real highlight of my career, and after spending those years there, it was neat therefore to be able to check out how other missions are set up, even to catch up on current ministry gossip.

I first met my contact at MFA headquarters in Singapore, even before I was shipped off to Washington. He had vague recollections of the time we worked together, although my memory’s clearer. There I was, new to MFA, blur, groping around and thrown into the deep end. He was an older and more experienced official who was generous with his time, sharing with me some of his experiences while overseas at post. It’s entirely apt that he’s since received this nice assignment to London.

You tend to remember people like him, don't you? You tend to remember these little random acts of kindness. These are the individuals who leave a lasting impression on you. Not the nasty ones. Not the arrogant ones. Nor the truly evil. For there are indeed quite a few of them out there in the working world.