Ju Ming – Sculpting the Living World

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Ju Ming’s playful and interactive sculptures outside of the museum


Although I have seen some of the internationally renowned Taiwanese artist/ sculptor Ju Ming‘s distinctive sculptures before, I was not aware of what has achieved until I visited his first retrospective in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong museum of Art ( until 15th June). And it has to be one of the best exhibitions that I have seen in Hong Kong.

The exhibition gathers 120 sets of artwork in wood, ceramics, stone, bronze and stainless steel, including the famous Taichi and Living World Series that he has been developing since the 1980s. Before entering the museum, many of his larger-scale/human-size sculptures can be seen scattered around the museum, hence attracting a lot of attention from passerby. These sculptures are playful and interactive, and provide great photo opportunities for the flocks of mainland Chinese tourists as the nearby Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade/Avenue of Stars is their must-stop attraction in Hong Kong.


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 Top row: work from his Living World Series; Main: Taichi series


In the main exhibition hall, most of the work on display are from the artist’s Living World and Taichi Series. Many of the eye-catching and colourful wooden sculptures from the former series depict ordinary people in movements, and they appear to be very humane and real. I am amazed by Ju Ming‘s sharp observations on people, their behaviour and scenes from everyday life and how they are transformed into simple (in terms of form) but impactful and mesmerising sculptures. Most of his human sculptures are ‘faceless’, there are no detailed facial features nor expressions, yet viewers could ‘feel’ the joy, humour, anxiety, calmness and excitement through the body language, which explains why his sculptures appeal to even those who do not appreciate or care much for art.


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Yet what I admire most about Ju Ming is that his continuity to explore new territories, experimenting on new materials, techniques, forms and themes throughout his life. This is not an easy task for many acclaimed and established artists as it is always easier and safer to ‘revise’ a formula that has worked in the past. To constantly break boundaries requires courage, and it differentiates what makes an artist ‘great’ rather than just ‘good’.


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Top and bottom right: Imprisonment series; bottom left: Cube


On the other end of the museum are Ju Ming‘s newer pieces from his Imprisonment (2010) and Cube series. Unlike his colourful earlier works, the large installations shown here are more subdue and all in black and white. It is fascinating to see how his work has evolved over the years, his new work is described as “back to the core” by the artist, focusing more on the philosophical aspects of life.

One of the pieces in the imprisonment series features a newly wed couple in a white cage, signifying the confinement by social system and ideology constraints. Yet the key is placed in the keyhole inside the cage, revealing that the couple chooses to encage themselves by choice. Another piece shows a half white and half black cage with two people facing each other. The one in the black side has been imprisoned physically, while the one on the white side is imprisoned by his/her own mind, though both could get out of the prison if they want to as there is no wall between them.

The Cube series reflect similar philosophy i.e. mankind creates unnatural matters such as constraints, invasions, obligations and it is our over-civilisation that bring upon disasters to ourselves and the planet. Man creates a cube and ultimately is imprisoned in it.

Ju Ming‘s view on human suffering shares something in common with Buddhism’s teachings i.e. we are all conditioned and shaped by the society, family, education, race and culture. We create our own suffering and imprisonment by our own thoughts and ego, yet we can walk away too by changing the way we think and confronting the prison that we create for ourselves. Maintaining balance and conforming to nature would help to make the world a better place.


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Main: Hong Kong specimen (part II) in mini ‘ripped rooms’ by Margaret Chu Cheuk-wai; 2nd row right: Rosanna Li’s Happy Folks; Bottom left: Danny Lee’s Waterdrop


On another floor of the museum, visitors can also see “Hong Kong Contemporary Art Awards 2012 — Thirteen Dimensions of Hong Kong” exhibition (until 13th July), showcasing painting, Chinese calligraphy and seal carving, sculpture, photography, installation, video and digital art by local artists. And outside of the museum, the “Heaven, Earth and Man” exhibition showcases some outdoor installations by local artists: Rosanna Li, Danny Lee and Kum Chi-keung, which are on display until 30th August.


Hong Kong International film festival 2014

The 38th Hong Kong’s International film festival took place from 24th March to 7th April, and I was able to see some films that are yet to be released or may not even get general releases.

As always, with so many films and limited time, it was hard to narrow the selection down. I wanted to see about 20 films but ended up with 9 only and here are some of my favourites:


Jodorowsky’s Dune

As a fan of art house and foreign films, I was a bit surprised not to have heard of the Paris-based Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky before the film festival. And having seen Dune before, I remembered clearly that it ( a commercial and critical flop) was made by David Lynch and not Jodorowsky. Out of curiosity I booked a double bill to see both Jodorowsky‘s new film followed by this documentary, and I was quite blown away by what I saw.

Directed by Frank Pavich, this documentary is about a vision of an artist and the most influential and ambitious film that was never made. I am sure like everyone else who saw this would wonder, “what if this film was actually made? Would it have been as successful as Star Wars or as disastrous as David Lynch’s Dune?”. Yet even though it was never made, the creative team Jodorowsky had assembled for the film, including Moebius and Swiss artist H. R. Giger (who died last week) brought their ideas and visuals to films like Star Wars, Alien and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jodorowsky himself is a passionate, eccentric and inspiring character, and the reason why I have never heard of him was because he has not made a film for the last 23 years. The documentary’s director attended the Q & A session, and answered many audience’s questions including the whereabouts of the mysterious storyboards that thought to have indirectly inspired other directors. Twenty copies of the hefty art book were produced to show to potential backers, and now only two are known to exist, so what happened to the rest? Like the fate of the film, we shall never know.



The Dance of Reality

La danza de la realidad ( its Spanish title) is based on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s autobiography of the same name. Not only this is Jodorowsky’s first film is 23 years, it is also co-produced by former Dune producer, Michel Seydoux whom he hasn’t been in touch with for 35 years. Thanks to Pavich‘s documentary on Dune, the two old friends reunited and broke the silence after all these years. Interestingly, the actor who plays Jodorowsky‘s father is his real son, Brontis and Alejandro plays a small part as himself.

This film has to be one of the most bizarre, surreal, dark, comical and beautiful films that I have ever seen. I would love to see Jodorowsky direct my favourite novel by Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, which I think shares many similar qualities as this film. Jodorowsky is an artist, and this film is a peek into his artistic mind. It is not without flaws ( I think 130 mins is too long), but it is not to admire the director’s creativity, passion and courage to be so ‘open’ about his past and relationship with his father. The film is made for ‘himself’ rather than aiming to please the audience, I wonder how many working directors are able to do this these days? Being true to your own vision and going against the grain is never easy, but sometimes it is the only way to find peace within yourself.




Directed by Hong Khaou, and starring Ben Whishaw and Cheng Pei Pei, this low-budget BBC productio set in London is a sensitive and touching story on grief, communication and human relationships. It is rather slow paced but there are many funny moments, mostly provided by Peter Bowles. The performances by the two leads are excellent, esp. Whishaw, who is very convincing and shows great depth and vulnerability that is rare to find on screen in today’s macho culture.



Blind massage

Directed by prominent Chinese director Ye Lou, this film is based on a novel by Bi Feiyu about a group of blind masseurs/masseuses working and living together in a Nanjing massage centre. The film reveals issues that the sight-impaired have to deal with on daily basis, including emotional, financial and sexual ones. Although some of the actors are sightless, most of the leads are not, yet the acting is convincing and captivating. My only complaint would be some of the over-dramatic/gruesome scenes, I am not sure if they are necessary apart from making the viewers feel uneasy. But the overall tone and pace work well, and the cinematography is creative and at times allow the viewers to ‘sense’ the impaired vision.



Journey to the West

After the disappointing ‘Face (Visage)’, I was a bit hesitate about seeing Taiwanese director, Tsai Ming Liang‘s new film. Luckily this new documentary is not only intriguing, it is imaginative, meditative, and beautifully shot. Inspired by the life of Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk who trekked from China to India for 17 years in the seventh-century. The documentary follows a Buddhist monk ( played by his long-term collaborator/real-life partner, Lee Kang-sheng) practising walking meditation in different parts of Marseille. For about an hour, viewers follow the monk around the city, and get a glimpse of the city life, its people and their reactions (or non-reactions) towards the monk. Tsai‘s slow-paced directing style is not for everyone, but I found it quite insightful and fascinating and I can’t wait to watch his previous award-winning feature film, Stray Dogs.



Villa 69

Directed by Ayten Amin, Villa 69 is Egyptian drama about illness, death, memories and intimacy. Shot entirely in an old but beautifully-designed house, the film follows Hussein, a terminally-ill man who chooses to live (while waiting to die) in isolation. His life is turned upside down when his sister and her teenage son move in regardless of his objection. Egyptian heart-throb and activist, Khaled Abu Al Naja (still good-looking and charming beneath the make-up) plays a role who is about 20 years older than his actual age, but manages to deliver a convincing portrait of a grumpy, lonely, eccentric, snobbish and charismatic man. However, I wonder if his role is played by someone less good-looking and charming, would the audience still be as sympathetic towards his character? I think Khaled is very good actor, but he is probably a miscast in this film… Since I am not familiar with the Egyptian cinema scene, I would pick someone like Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley or Om Puri (British Asian) as the Western equivalents for this role. Khaled is simply too ‘perfect’ for this!




Hong Kong’s new street art scene

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Graham street mural


Hong Kong has never been regarded as an art and creative hub, but in recent years things are changing… aside from the annual Art Basel, new galleries (including international ones) are opening all the time, and the city will finally have its first world-class visual culture museum in 2017 ( it’s about time). Now even the street art scene is getting more exciting!

After traveling to two highly state-controlled cities (Shanghai and Sinagpore) where the street art and graffiti is almost non-existent, it is thrilling to discover new street art pieces every week in certain areas (mostly Sheung Wan) of Hong Kong. Although some of these work would be painted over, new work would re-emerge very quickly, and this constant defiance towards authority makes Hong Kong more ‘rebellious’ than cities that choose to conform.


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Street art in Sheung Wan and further west


Since graffiti is still illegal in Hong Kong, the removal of graffiti and street art is nothing new as the Hong Kong’s authority has removed almost all of the legendary street ‘calligrapher’, Tsang Tsou Choi’s (King of Kowloon) work apart from 4 pieces. One of the surviving pieces is the pillar at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Star Ferry pier in Kowloon, which is now protected behind a ridiculous transparent plastic cover (see below)! In 2011, a retrospective at Artistree paid tribute to the calligrapher who died in 2007 at the age of 85, and the new M+ museum has also acquired his calligraphy-painted doors to be displayed when it finally opens its door. The proverb, ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ certainly applies here.

The biggest event in the Hong Kong’s street art scene took place when French urban artist, Invader ‘invaded’ Hong Kong in January of this year (his third trip) to leave his signature mosaics (48 pieces) all over the city. Yet within a month, the authority decided to remove his Pac-Man tile mosaic by the Highways Department due to ‘safety’ reasons.

And what followed up was very interesting… this act not only upset the artist who released a statement expressing his disappointment, it also angered the public and subsequently local artist, Kacey Wong created and distributed a poster online calling for the work to be restored. Miraculously, the work resurfaced not long after his plea, yet the identity of this new plastic art work (the original is ceramics) is still a mystery. This act though, proves that people power is not to be underestimated!


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Bottom left: Invader’s new piece at Ladder Street; Bottom right: One of the last 4 original calligraphy by Tsang Tsou Choi’s (King of Kowloon) at Star Ferry


Street art has been employed by some artists as a form of activism, and in Hong Kong, Pride in Rainbow was formed by in 2011 by a small group of local artists around the time of the Hong Kong Pride Parade. Since then, rainbow-filled stencil art of animals and prominent local gay and lesbian singers (who openly came out) started to appear. These work act as messages to support the LGBT community and create awareness to their rights that they are still fighting for.


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Top left, right, 2nd row left & middle: gay and lesbian local celebrities – Leslie Cheung, Antony Wong and Denise Ho by Pride in Rainbow


On this trip, I stumbled upon some colourful and eye-catching ‘yarn bombing’ (guerilla-style street knitting) around Central and Sheung Wan. I was very curious about these lovely pieces and later I found out that they are created by Esther Poon, an aerobics teacher who is also a keen knitter. Inspired by Magda Sayeg and her Hong Kong project ‘I Knit MK’, Esther started to create her own pieces to promote the art of yarn bombing last year. Her covered street railings are not only decorative but they are also warm to hold onto in the winters, which is ideal for the elderly walking up and down the long and steep steps in the hilly areas. Work like this would certainly change the way people view street art.


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Main & 2nd row left: Esther Poon’s colourful crochet work can be found around Sheung Wan


While street art and graffiti is becoming more acceptable and even celebrated in certain parts of the world, many still consider it as vandalism, and like always, the boundary between art, vandalism and activism is becoming more blurry. Personally, I think a lot of people do not understand the underlying value of street art and graffiti, whether these work have artistic value or not is besides the point. Street art and graffiti started as a sub-culture ( despite its growing popularity now), it exists because there are many people (including artists or unemployed youths) in the society regard themselves as outsiders and are unable to get their voices heard, so they express themselves or their beliefs through art or words. The act itself reflects some kind of non-conformity towards the authority, and how the authority reacts towards these work also reflect their tolerance level. In East London, street art is treated as part of the streetscape and even tourist attractions. In many ways, an authority that celebrates street art and other forms of sub-culture reveals their confidence and tolerance on diversity and freedom.

It is the creative street art and vibrant street scenes that make Hong Kong more interesting than some other Asian cities under strict authoritarian rule, yet the government has been trying to banish all the street activities including getting rid of the wet/street markets, street food carts and dai pai dongs (outdoor food eateries). When will they realise that the street life in Hong Kong is actually its unique selling point?

Street art in Hong Kong needs to continue because conformity is not an option.

Check out Hong Kong’s street art scene here at Hong Kong Walls.


The debate of 27 Lugard Road in Hong Kong

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The rooftop with possibly the best view of Hong Kong?


Since last year, there has been much debate regarding the future of the century-old historic house at 27 Lugard Road up on the Peak of Hong Kong. It all started when Hong Kong’s Town Planning Board approved the conversion of this Grade II listed historical building into a boutique hotel, despite strong opposition from the Central and Western District Councils. The new owner, Developer Crown Empire bought it for HK$384 million in 2012 and proposed to turn it into a 17-room boutique hotel to be opened in 2016. Yet aside from opposition from the district councils, it has also caused an outrage among the public due to concern for its impact on one of Hong Kong’s most popular hiking trails where it is situated. Since the Peak was solely reserved for Westerners in the colonial days, many lavish colonial style houses were built here. Sadly most of them had been demolished over the years and so historical houses like this is rare to find these days.

While I was in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to visit the site with conservationists from Hong Kong University’s The Architectural Conservation Programmes. The objective of the visit was ‘to gain a deeper understanding of the feasibility of integrating conservation and development‘. Using Tai O heritage hotel and Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in Penang as examples, the conservationists question whether it would be possible to achieve a sustainable conservation-cum-development. Heritage b & bs have proved to be highly successful in West esp. in the U.K., yet this concept is still fairly new in Hong Kong and there is still much confusion about the proposal of this development.


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Left: the steep slope leading up to the house; middle: Petitions opposing the development; right: a red mail box outside


In order to get to the house, we had to walk for about 20 minutes on the narrow and mostly shady Lugard Road hiking trail until we reached a 100-metre steep slope and the house’s front gate is situated on the top of the slope. We saw petitions and banners opposing the plan along the trail by Alliance for a beautiful Hong Kong, a local Environmental Concern Group that aims “to promote aesthetic values and the integrity of the natural environment in Hong Kong’s public areas, both urban and rural.” This attracted the attention of many passing hikers, who would stop to sign the petition.


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Constructed in 1914, the house was designed by Lennox Godfrey Bird on the land bought by his brother in a public auction. The house was bought by the Taikoo Dockyard and Engineering company in 1930 and since then it has been used as a residence for the company’s staff and family. The house’s old tennis court (now the swimming pool) was bombed by the Japanese in 1941, which also hid some of the family’s silver (I wonder what happened to it?). Due to damage during the war, the house was not rehabilitated until 1950 by the bachelor owner of ‘Kelly & Walsh’. The house has since changed owners a few times and restorations and conversions were made over the years.

Despite the war damage and several conversions, the neo-classical colonial style house still manages to preserve some of its authentic features, notably the segmental arches, columns and decorative stucco seen on the facade and inside. I was also thrilled to see a red letter box outside of the gate, which reminded me of the days when people used to write and receive letters instead of just sending emails and sms. This box is certainly not big enough for our Amazon and online shopping that we receive via the post these days!


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Surprisingly, the house is not as big as I imagined, the interior of the house also looks ‘newer’ than I expected with fully modernised kitchen and bathrooms. There are crystals chandeliers hanging from the ceilings and original fireplaces, hence we can find three chimney stacks on the rooftop. The view of Hong Kong from the balcony of two of the rooms at the front is simply spectacular. I wonder what was on the ex-tenants’ minds when they used to wake up to see this view every morning?


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The house’s swimming pool occupies most of the outdoor area but there is a decent size garden with some tall trees and plants. The view of the house from the garden reminded me of the slow and relaxing vibe captured in the black-and-white photos of Hong Kong’s colonial days. This pace and ambience is very hard to find in Hong Kong now.


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Lugard Road trail


After the house visit, my friend and I completed the circular trail, which took another 45 minutes. It has been years since I have walked along this popular trail, and it is easy to understand the public concern regarding the impact of this development on the environment as it is one of the most pleasant and relaxing trails in Hong Kong. Aside from the amazing trees and plantations, hikers can also enjoy the breathtaking views of Hong Kong for free.

However, I am also wondering if restrictions are placed to prevent extensive conversions on the plot and house, then is there a possibility to strike a balance and minimal impact on its surroundings? The conservationists’ use the multiple award-winning Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion as an example to demonstrate that this can be achieved when done properly. Yet judging from other similar developments in Hong Kong, (e.g the hideous newly-converted Wai Chai market), it’s hard not to worry that the house may end up looking like a Disneyland castle.

I think that the Town Planning Board has mishandled the situation by ignoring opposition voices before approving the proposal. The Board and developers owe the public a more detailed explanation on what they plan to achieve and how they will achieve it in a sustainable way. I don’t know how much power the conservationists have over the developers, but if the developers can work with conservations architects instead of commercial ones to restore the house rather than ‘destroying’ the original appeal and features, then this project may be feasible (perhaps the Planning Board should seek advice from Singapore).

Hong Kong’s town planning is like a joke, and since the government is capable of constantly messing things up, let’s see whether the project will turn out to be like Tai O heritage hotel or another Wai Chai market… Meanwhile, I am going to turn a blind eye until 2016 when all will be revealed.


Sights, colours & tastes of Sinagpore’s Chinatown


 A view of the city of Ann Siang Hill Park


When I visit urban cities, aside from the price, the location of the accommodation is a crucial factor for my decision-making. In Singapore, reasonably-priced accommodations are hard to find, even on Airbnb, options are limited and uninspiring. After some extensive search, I chose to stay in a simple boutique hotel in the colourful, bustling and historical Chinatown. Besides the thin walls, everything was fine and the location is convenient, with the MRT only minutes away and close to many sights and eateries.

Chinatown is also known as ‘Niu Che Shui’ in Chinese, which means ‘bullock cart water’, in reference to the bullock carts that used to supply fresh water to its residents. The area used to be a Chinese immigrant ghetto, and it is full of colourful pre-war 2/3-storey Chinese and Malay style shophouses. In 1989, the Urban Redevelopent Authority launched a project to restore these buildings and subsequently converted them into shops, restaurants, hotels and museums etc. Despite the commendable conservation effort and vision, from the aesthetic point of view, I think these buildings look too new and pristine, making the area look more like film sets rather than an authentic heritage site. However, having said that, I am still glad that the authority didn’t just demolish and replace them by the 1980s style glass highrises like Hong Kong did (oh, I just can’t help comparing the 2 cities).


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Top right: The Jinrikisha Station; 4th row left: The Majestic: 5th row: The 50s; 6th row left: The screening room


Chinatown is large area divided into 5 districts: Kreta Ayer, Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Pasoh and Ann Siang Hill. Ann Siang Hill is the trendier and expat-friendly part with many Western bars, restaurants and boutique (meaning tiny rooms) hotels. I picked up a paper area guide before I exploring the area, and it turned out that most of the shops recommended had either closed down or moved out the premises! I am not sure if it is due to high rental prices or lack of human traffic, but the area did seem rather quiet when I visited during the day. A pleasant surprise is the small but very lush Ann Siang Hill park, the tallest geographical point in Chinatown, which leads to Amoy Street and Telok Ayer.


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Chinatown is a very colourful place


Three national monuments are located on Telok Ayer Street including Thian Hock Keng Temple, Al-Abrar Mosque and Nagore Durgha Shrine. Completed in 1842, Thian Hock Keng is one of the oldest and most important Hokkien temple in Singapore. The temple was built in traditional southern Chinese architectural style, and the entire structure was assembled without nails. The temple’s last restoration completed in 2000, which won several architectural awards.

I was particularly attracted by a fascinating Islamic structure, which turned out to be the Nagore Durgha Shrine. Built in 1830 by brothers Mohammed and Haja Mohideen as a memorial to a Muslim holy man, Shahul Hamid (also Shahul Hameed) of Nagore in southern India. The shrine’s extensive restoration started in 2007 and ended in 2011, now the ground floor has been converted into a heritage centre and is open to the public. Actually there isn’t much to see, but it is worth visiting if you happen to pass it.


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Top left & 2nd row left: Jamae Mosque; Top middle & 2nd row right: Sri Mariamman Temple; Top row right: Thian Hock Keng temple; 3rd row: Nagore Dargah Shrine: Bottom row right: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple


Kreta Ayer is the heart of Chinatown and the South Bridge Road is home to two national monuments: Jamae Mosque and Sri Mariamman Temple. Established in 1826, Jamae Mosque was the first of three mosques in Chinatown erected by the Chulias, who were Tamil Muslims from the Coromandel Coast of Southern India. The green structure’s pair of Neo-classical prayer halls is very eye-catching, just like the gopuram (entrance tower) of the Sri Mariamman Temple further down the road, founded a year later than the mosque.

At the end of the road is a new and rather imposing Chinese temple, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and museum founded by the Venerable Shi Fazhao in 2002. The S$45 million (donated by worshippers) Tang dynasty style temple was built to house the supposed tooth relic of the Buddha, claimed to have been discovered by a Myanmar monk, the late Venerable Cakkapala in 1980 while restoring a collapsed stupa in Myanmar. Whether it is the real deal or not doesn’t matter because the tooth is only accessible to the public on special occasions, instead you will find a lot of gold inside…

On Pagoda Street, there is restored shophouse that has been transformed into Chinatown Heritage Centre, a recreation of 1950’s Singapore that is faithful down to the smallest of details and filled with videos and descriptions of Singapore’s heritage.


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The Red Dot design museum


In recent years, the Tanjong Pagar district has been nicknamed ‘koreantown’ due to a surge of Korean eateries and Korean wedding boutiques along Tanjong Pagar Road. The landmark on this road is the historical Jinrikisha Station built from 1903 to 1904 as a rickshaw station. The building was restored in 1987 and is now used as a shopping and recreational centre.

It is almost impossible to miss the large red colonial building on Maxwell Road. The building is the Red Dot design museum, which used to be the traffic police HQ. Opened in 2005 by Germany’s Red Dot Institute, this contemporary design museum is their first outlet in Asia. The museum displays more than 1,000 exhibits/ Red Dot Design Award winners ranging from product designs to communication designs. The design shop also sells a range of international and local designed objects.


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Singapore City Gallery at The Urban Redevelopment Authority


Opposite the Red Dot museum is The Urban Redevelopment Authority centre, and located on the first floor is the free-entry Singapore City Gallery. The gallery tells the story of Singapore’s physical transformation over the past 50 years through architectural models and various interactive and experiential exhibits. This gallery is quite fascinating as it shows the ‘grand vision’ of urban planning and development by the government since decades back, and how the city will evolve in the future. The history, present and future of Singapore’s cityscape can all be found within this gallery, but if you want to learn more about the country’s history, art, cultural and social aspects, a trip to the National Museum of Singapore (93 Stamford Rd) is a must.


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Baba house


On the outskirt of Chinatown, there is a special heritage home that is worth visiting if you have the time. Built possibly in the 1860s, Baba House (157 Neil Rd) is a Peranakan (meaning mixed-race descendants from Chinese or Indian tradesmen and women of the local communities in Southeast Asia) terrace house formerly owned by 19th-century shipping tycoon Wee Bin who settled in Singapore, after arriving from the southern China. The house has been beautifully restored and is open for visits by appointments. Peranakan culture is unique to Southeast Asia, and you can find out more about it at The Peranakan Museum (39 Armenian Street).


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Park Royal on Pickering designed by WOHA


Aside from heritage buildings, one new building particularly stands out in Chinatown and it is the multiple award-winning Park Royal on Pickering. The 367-room hotel opened last year and it is designed by local architectural firm, WOHA. Designed as a hotel-as-garden, it features large balconies and terraces covered in 15,000 square metres of tropical plants, and other green innovations include the use of solar energy, harvesting of rainwater and natural light, energy-efficient air conditioning and automatic sensors to regulate energy and water usage and carbon monoxide levels. I did not go inside of the hotel but I was very impressed by its exterior. Again, this design echoes the government’s ‘Green Plan’, which helps Singapore to pave its way to become one of the world’s greenest cities.


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First left & 2nd row: Tai Chong Kok bakery; 3rd row middle, right & 4th row right: Rose Citron; 4th row left & bottom left: Egg3; Bottom middle & right: Littered with books



The busiest and most touristy part of Chinatown is the street market which is filled with 200 market stalls lining Pagoda, Trengganu and Sago streets. Most of these stalls sell touristy souvenir, but there are some interesting heritage shops located along these streets too. One of the most eye-catching one is Tai Chong Kok bakery (34 Sago St), a moon cake bakery established in 1935. The bakery still sells moon cakes and other traditional Cantonese confections like Wife and husband cakes, egg tarts and almond cookies etc.

In the relaxing Duxton hill, there is a charming independent bookshop, Littered with books (20 Duxton Road), which was voted as the Best New Bookstore by Time Out 2011. There is a range of fiction and non-fiction literature, as well as travel, cookery, children’s books, and secondhand ones. It is a very chilled and pleasant place to browse or spend your time.

Rose Citron (23 Keong Saik Rd) is a colourful shop specialising in hand-sewn fashion bags, accessories and home soft furnishings. I love the exotic and bright floral prints here, but I find the prices to be quite steep, so if you are looking for something unique, be prepared to pay extra for it here.

Egg3 (33 Erskine Road) is a cool lifestyle shop established in 2004. This branch stocks a range of on-trend fashion clothing and accessories by local designers, and some quirky home accessories. The prices here are reasonable and the designs are quite unique, so it is a good alternative to the chained fashion brands in the shopping malls.


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Top left: Hong Lim food centre; Top right: Tian Tian chicken rice; 2nd row: Maxwell Road hawker centre; 3rd row: the Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa; 4th row left & middle: Ann Chin popiah; 4th row right: Chinatown Complex Market and Food centre; Bottom left: Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee; Bottom right: Indian thali



Like all Asian cities, food plays a vital part in this city. But unlike other Asian cities, Singapore is more well-known for its hawker centres than its restaurants. Forget your diet and hygiene, a visit to the hawker centres is a must as the food is much cheaper, fresher and more authentic than the restaurants.

After a S$5 million facelift, the 100-metre food street at Smith Street reopened in February with 24 street hawker shops, six shophouse restaurants and several street kiosks. I visited it one evening and found the street very touristy, also the food prices are higher and not as good as the other hawker centres nearby.

My favourite hawker centre in Chinatown is the less well-known Hong Lim food centre (531A Upper Cross Street) where you will find mostly locals and many long established stalls. I tried the famous Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee (#02-17), very tasty and dirt cheap at S$3, but probably not the healthiest options… A few days later, I went back to visit the Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa (#02-66) late in theafternoon. The centre looked rather quiet as stalls were closing (stalls close earlier here than other centres, so it is best to come earlier in the day), but I managed to get a bowl of laksa without the crayfish as I was told by the friendly owner that it was sold-out after lunch and told me to visit earlier next time. Nonetheless, he was enthusiastic to see a non-local visiting his stall and was eager for me to taste his ‘special’ broth made from dried scallops. The soup here is not made with coconut milk, it is lighter than the norm yet still quite flavoursome and tangy, but I suspect that it would have been better if I had come earlier.

Not far from the food street is Chinatown Complex Market and Food centre (336 Smith Street), one of the largest hawker centre in the city. About 200 stalls are ‘hidden’ on the first floor of a large building and it is easy to miss from the street if you are not looking specifically for it. Once inside, you are spoilt for choice because there are so many stalls and some with extra long queues! I headed for the well-known Terry Katong Laksa (#02-94) except to be told that the broth was not ready yet (this time I was too early, I don’t seem to have much luck with laksa somehow)! I then went for Ann Chin Popiah (#02-112), founded by Mr Lim Kam Chwee, a Hokkien who brought his recipe from Fujian in the 1940s. The roll is light and filled with lettuce, sweet sauce, chopped peanuts, beansprouts and shredded turnip and carrot. Unlike all the other hawker stall favourites, this is a healthier and lighter option.

One of the most popular centre in Chinatown is the Maxwell Road hawker centre, which attracts both locals and tourists. Even before Anthony Bourdain‘s visit, Tian Tian chicken rice (#01-10/11) has been a long local favourite. I found it to be quite over-hyped, as the chicken itself doesn’t seem to have much flavour to it, although the rice itself is very fragrant. I have definitely had better chicken rice before, so I really don’t see what the fuss is about.


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Top left: P.S. cafe at Ann Siang Hill; 2th row right: Good morning Nanyang cafe on Pickering; Bottom left: Seafood and pesto laksa pasta at P.S. cafe; Bottom right: breakfast set at Good morning Nanyang cafe


Traditional breakfasts used to be consisted of kaya (a jam made from eggs, sugar, coconut milk and pandan) toast, soft-boiled eggs and kopi (coffee). And one of the best place for this can be found at the Good Morning Nanyang Cafe where you will find different set combos. I visited two branches in Chinatown and tasted their two well-known ciabatta versions. Even though I don’t usually have a sweet tooth, I did enjoy the kaya toasts. However, I wasn’t sure how to eat the soft-boiled egg until I watched a local cracking it into a bowl and adding soy source to it! The branch at Telok Ayer Hong Lim Green Community Centre (opposite the Park Royal hotel) is very pleasant as has outdoor seating and overlooks the park.

The only restaurant meal that I had in Chinatown was at the P.S. cafe on Ann Siang Hill. I love the location, ambience, dark wood interior and the cocktail! Prices here are not cheap… the laksa pasta with king prawns here is quite unusual, but I think you pay more for the ambience here than the food itself.


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Interesting streetscape in Chinatown


Contrary to its name, I think Chinatown is a melting pot not only catered for the Chinese community. Aside from conserving heritage from the past, there are many new elements and seems to be evolving constantly. Personally I prefer this characteristic area over the commercial Orchard Road which is just full of glossy shopping malls. Next time if you visit this area, try to explore beyond the touristy Kreta Ayer district as there is a lot of gems waiting to be discovered.


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The community that makes Chinatown a vibrant and intersting place


Singapores’s Tiong Bahru neighbourhood

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Tiong Bahru estate


Tiong Bahru is home to Singapore’s first housing estate, built in the 1930s west of Chinatown. Yet the term ‘Tiong Bahru’ means new cemetery because it was a swampy land used as a burial site since the late 19th century. Eventually the area was redeveloped and the first set of housing blocks were completed in 1936, with more were to follow after WWII.

The population of Tiong Bahru estate declined steadily for the past few decades as more people moved into newly built condominiums. Yet in recent years, young professionals and expats have moved back in while new independent cafes, restaurants and shops have sprung up, injecting a younger and livelier vibe to this old residential neighbourhood. In many ways, it feels similar to Hong Kong’s Tai Hang neighbourhood, where young, old, locals and expats coexist side-by-side.

Since it is not close to the metro station, the area still has a rather sleepy feel to it esp. along Seng Poh Rd, where Tiong Bahru Market and hawker centre is located.


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Top right: Tiong Bahru Market and hawker centre; Others: Block 78 on Guan Chuan Street


Built in the shape of a horse shoe, Block 78 on Guan Chuan Street is not only the largest block in the estate, but it also contains a 1500 square feet air raid shelter built in 1939. And last year the National Heritage Board launched a Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail which includes visits to the air shelter. Unfortunately, I did not find out about this until later, but if you are interested in finding more about this trail and the history of this area, you can go to National Heritage Board for more details.


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On Yong Siak Street, there are several cool shops and cafes including (no.7) Stranglets, an independent design/ lifestyle shop that sells design objects, stationery, games, homeware, fashion accessories by local and international designers.


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 Books actually


Next to it is probably my favourite shop in Singapore (also loved by the locals): Books actually, an independent bookshop specialises in fiction and literature established in 2005. I love the fact that a lot of the books here are published locally and cannot be easily found elsewhere. At the back of the shop, there are two small rooms filled with wonderful vintage Bric-à-brac, a bit like an Aladdin’s cave. But the star of the shop must be its book-loving cat, which sits happily on top of the books watching book-lovers walking in and out…


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Plain Vanilla cafe


A few doors down, Plain Vanilla (1D) is a relaxing and unpretentious cup cake cafe is a popular hang out. I am not a cup cake fan but I did enjoy their not-too-sweet dark chocolate cup cake.

The landscape of the area is changing rapidly because landlords are take advantage of the area’s increasing popularity and rents have soared in the past 2 years. As always, whenever a neighbourhood is being gentrified, old local businesses will be replaced by new ones, and there will be dissatisfaction among the locals. There will be 2 sides of the story, and finding a balance is crucial in order to create a harmonious environment and community where the old and the new can co-exist happily.


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Top left: Woods in the books; 2nd row right: Flock cafe; Bottom left: durian stall; Bottom right: stall selling live seafood


Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay

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A futuristic-looking garden by Marina Bay


When I first saw the photos of Gardens by the Bay a few years ago, I was very impressed by the futuristic architecture and concept. Built on reclaimed land spanning 101 hectares, the tropical gardens are designed by British architects Wilkinson Eyre and landscape architects Grant Associates. The ambitious £350 million project is part of the Singapore government’s aim to transform Singapore from a ‘Garden City’ to the ‘City in a Garden’, thus improving the quality of life by a greener environment for the citizens.

The overall concept was inspired by orchid as it represents the tropics and Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’. The tropical gardens are divided into sub-gardens with different themes and two large conservatories. But the most eye-catching of all must be the 18 ‘Supertree’ vertical gardens with plant species growing up their steel and concrete trunks and measuring up to 50 metres in height. Each of them contains rainwater collection tanks and pumps that cool themselves as well as the two conservatories beside them. The project has since won 16 international architectural/landscape design awards including World Building of the Year Award at the World Architecture Festival Awards 2012.

Does this project reveal a glimpse of how our future can be? Can we use this as an example to create a sustainable and livable environment in our ever-growing urban cities? I was eager to find out.


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Top left: Inside the Flower dome; Top right, bottom middle and right: Inside the Cloud Forest


Since the garden is located at Marina Bay, right outside of The Sands Expo and Convention Center where Maison et objet Asia took place, I decided to take the opportunity to explore the garden after the talks one afternoon in spite of the heat (35 degrees) outside. I was hoping to hang out inside the conservatories to avoid the afternoon heat, but the 20-minute walk (without shade) from the centre to the conservatories was so unbearable that I realised it was probably not the wisest idea to attempt visiting in the afternoon.

Even though the outdoor gardens are free to all, there are entrance fees to the two conservatories. I was told to first visit the Flower Dome, a cool-dry conservatory that replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean regions like South Africa, California and parts of Spain and Italy. Although I saw many beautiful flowers, plants and cacti well laid-out everywhere, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. Having visited many wonderful outdoor botanical gardens previously (including the amazing Desert Botanical garden in Phoenix), I found the indoor conservatory artificial and uninspiring despite the good intention, effort and range of species. There is also a high-end restaurant inside, Pollen, owned by the British chef Jason Atherton (who seems to be conquering the world right now). I only had a drink there, which was accompanied by ‘tourist’ price and rather (consciously) inefficient service. Somewhat disappointed with experience, I left the gardens and decided to return later in the early evening to visit the other conservatory and the light and sound show.


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I returned later in the day when the temperature was more bearable to wander, and I visited the other conservatory, Cloud Forest. I went in with almost no expectations ( esp. after my disappointing experience earlier) and I was stunned when I walked in. I came face to face with a 35-metre tall mountain covered in lush vegetation and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, and it completely lifted my mood. I felt exuberant as I never seen anything like this before (even knowing that it is artificial).

Visitors can ascend to the indoor mountaintop by lifts and descend via two walkways in the clouds for an aerial view of the canopy below and outside. As I descended, there are information explaining the biodiversity and geology of cloud forests and the environmental threats they face. And at the bottom levels, there are Earth check and +5 degrees where interactive animations and infographics of facts, figures and statistics of the state of the earth today and the problems we are likely to face due to climate change and habitat loss. The film shown at +5 degrees reveals the danger and destructive consequences that are likely to happen around the world with every an increase of 1 celsius/ centigrade.

I liked the layout of the levels and thought the infographics are very well executed, I especially applaud their effort in the educational aspect, which I believe will be very beneficial for younger children. Earlier in the afternoon, I was beginning to wonder the point of project and yet this conservatory completely changed my perspective. I was glad that I revisited the gardens again.


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The interactive graphics and information display inside the Cloud Forest dome


There are two light and sound shows every evening, and an extra $5 can get you up in the 128-metre long skyway that connects two of the supertrees where you can enjoy the city view and the show at 22-metres above ground. The experience was a cool and a bit scary at the same time, it is not recommended if you are prone to vertigo!

The experience at night was completely different from the day as it was breezier and watching the sunset from above was a fantastic experience. Overall, I think The Gardens of the Bay is a very brave and commendable project, it also demonstrates the grand vision of the Singapore Government. It may be a small country and essentially a one-party state but its ambitions and visions are not small. Now I am very curious to see how Singapore will evolve in the future because despite its size, its potential and influence is not to be underestimated.


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