Archive for December, 2011

A Night Out in Chinatown

Singapore has three great pleasures.

Shopping (I’ve told Nancy on several occassions that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting at least one shopping mall.)

Eating (That same swing will net somewhere between two and five eating places. And, against all odds, they’re good.  All of them.)

Friends (Lunch isn’t lunch without company.  Calendars for lunch are booked weeks in advance.  Good friends are as important as eating and shopping.)

Tonight we combined two of the three. Before the Christmas holiday, my colleague, Bharat, (the other guy from Singapore) suggested a night out during the slow week between Christmas and New Year (that is, the Western New Year.  Here, we celebrate New Year twice, once Western style and once Chinese style). Part of the joy of going out is being able to look forward to it; we enjoyed that anticipation for over a week.

Singaporeans are justifiably proud of their city / country, and they delight in introducing their foreign friends to wonderful Singaporean food.  Tonight was an excursion into Chinatown. Chinese dinner, ordered in conversation with the waitress without benefit of a menu.  Rice, noodles, clay pot chicken, beef with bitter melon, steamed fish, prawns, Chinese spinach, sweet and sour pork.  Tiger beer and Chinese tea (black, never green tea which would be Japanese). It’s important to have many people around the table because that justifies many dishes and many tastes.  Good food, good conversation, many laughs.

Here we are after we demolished dinner:

Brian, Pat, Paul, Bharat, Nancy, and Mike behind the camera as usual.

The restaurant focused on the food, not the atmosphere.  The walls were shiny white tile.  The lights were bright.  The rest rooms were – let’s say they were traditional. Not the kind of place that gets noticed in the Fodor’s or Frommer’s.  Not the kind of place that the average Westerner would casually wander in and sit down. But the food was wonderful and the place had won awards (see the certificates on the wall above Bharat).

After dinner, we went even deeper into Chinatown to a dessert shop.  No chocolate ice cream or petit fours here.  This was more serious Singapore Chinese eating. Mei Heong Yuen Dessert Shop, to be precise.  Please order in Chinese, or just point to pictures on the menu. Walnut paste, which is warm, very slightly sweet, somewhat soupy, and vaguely walnut flavored.  Chendol – coconut milk in shaved ice, red beans, and gelatinous green noodles; almost like ice cream. Mango, pomelo, and sago – chilled mixed fruit in a syrup.  Good – maybe even very good – but not quite delicious to Western trained palates. Probably an acquired taste.  Except chendol, which has left a delightful memory on my tongue. And, interestingly, everyone around the table described it to us as “very sweet”.  Pleasantly so, but not what I would call overpowering.

A thousand thanks to Brian and Bharat for giving us this introduction.  A thousand thanks to Pat for introducing me earlier in the week to prata (originally from Southern India, and adopted as a Singapore staple – a flat, crepe-like pancake, often served with a bowl of curry and eaten for breakfast, accompanied by teh tarik, or warm, sweet, milk tea, Singapore style. Get it from the street restaurants).  Good friends sharing delightful good food.  How lucky we are to be here!


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Our faithful readers know, by now, of course, that Singapore is just three degrees north of the equator.  Our two seasons are hot and wet, and hotter and drier.  Our days get at most five minutes shorter in the winter (our hot and wet season) and five minutes longer in the summer.  Our population is primarily ethnic Chinese, with a significant fraction of ethnic Malay, and a smaller but still significant fraction of ethnic Indian.  In school, English is the primary language, but students are required to take twelve years of classes in the language of their ethnic heritage: Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil.

We do not get snow.  (When I took a taxi home from the airport a few days ago, I talked with the driver about the rain that we’d had for the last several days, and then I asked what he thought the weather would be for Christmas.  “Maybe it will snow?” I asked.  He almost choked!  “No.  No snow in Singapore.  If it snow here, something wrong!”)  We do not have short days for the winter solstice.  We do not have a majority Christian population.

So, what about Christmas?  See for yourself:

Is that snow on the tree?  Snow in Singapore?  Really?  Well, no, it’s soap suds.  There’s a special machine that churns the suds and sprays them on the tree.  Really?  a soap suds machine?

If you look closely, you’ll see that the girl in the picture is not Nancy.  Who is she?  I have no idea.  When the Christmas trees appear on Orchard Road, the cameras come out.  Everyone has a camera, and everyone wants to take a picture of their girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/kids or maybe some random hottie standing in front of a big tree:

Every mall of any importance along Orchard Road has a tree.  Twenty feet seems to be the minimum height.

It looks like the hop-on, hop-off bus has a special tour of the Orchard Road Christmas trees.

Paragon Plaza may be the mall with the most expensive brand stores, the coldest air-con, and the biggest tree.

Soap-suds machines not withstanding, we don’t expect a white Christmas in Singapore, but the light show is pretty good none the less.

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South African Safari

Sub-Saharan Africa!   

Michael and I were on our way, and just the name filled our imaginations with images of . . . steamy jungles teeming with hooting monkeys?  Vast deserts with shimmering mirages always just out of reach?  Muddy water holes surrounded by scattered remains of . . . jungle quicksand?  Tarzan and the apes?

Obviously, we had seen movies, but we didn’t really know what South Africa was all about.  Since Michael was on a business trip to “golden” Johannesburg, we expected the sleek office buildings and luxury hotels, which we saw in the leafy northern suburbs.   What we didn’t expect was that virtually ALL homes in both Johannesburg and nearby Pretoria would be surrounded by solid six-foot walls topped with barbs and electrified fences.  When we visited Soweto (part of “greater Jo’burg” and only safe to visit on a guided tour) and witnessed the flood of migration and unemployment and abject poverty that continues to weight down the people, the country . . . the continent, it all became clear.  Saying that this is still a place of socio-economic extremes is an understatement.

Despite these factors, once outside metro Jo’burg, we discovered that South Africa looks a lot like . . . well, California!  It has similar terrain, vegetation, and weather, rich with mineral deposits, wide open spaces, orchards and livestock, rolling hills and rocky mountainsides, water reservoirs surrounded by new red tile-roofed stucco homes . . .

But it also has bush country with game reserves and safaris!  Michael and I traveled into bush country on a “Walk with the Lions.” Then while he worked during the week (one works, one plays – an equitable arrangement), I also “Walked with Elephants.”  These were both at private game reserves several hours outside the city and dedicated to the conservation of lions and other exotic species, as well as protection from poachers.

We invite you to safari through our eyes!

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This morning Mike and I walked to Holland Village to have hair cuts, and we got the works again, including massage shampoos.  And somehow I got talked into an extra-deluxe moisturizing treatment, and he got talked into an extra-deluxe product to prevent further hair loss—so we left our “salon experience” a little lighter than we expected . . . but stylishly coiffed.  Then we had to “research” some fancy kind of festive torte for next Saturday when we’re having a couple of young women (another story) over for Christmas Eve dinner.  So we went window-shopping at several bakeries/dessert places in Holland V and found out how early we’d have to order our something decadently chocolate for next weekend.

Next on our agenda was heading to an Orchard Road mall where we knew a Citibank branch was open on Saturday afternoon.  This involved first waiting for a jammed bus, standing all the way, and fighting our way through Christmas shopping hordes on the street.   We spent another 30 minutes at Citibank with an extremely polite youngster attired like a banker in dark suit/white shirt filling out the paperwork, passport info, and signing multiple forms.  This was just to get me a supplemental credit card for one Mike already has.  By then we were starving for lunch, and the Ion Mall “food hall” (mammoth food court with many dozens of places) was jam-packed.  But we finally found a tiny table and ended up with a great roasted duck lunch with veggies.  But after all that window shopping for tortes, it didn’t feel right without stopping at one of the enticing shops to buy two tiny bits of dark chocolate truffle on our way out ($4.40—and they were VERY tiny).

We still had to go grocery shopping—and this time we were off on the MRT (subway) to Carre Four a “megamarket” in a different 10-story mall (slightly cheaper prices than the typical Cold Storage supermarkets).  It’s so big it’s on two floors, and because it’s the holidays, it was also more mobbed than usual, but we managed to fill our cart with $245 of food and wine, including a plump whole duck to roast for the aforementioned Christmas Eve dinner (and inspired by our duck lunch).  Mike was careful to point out to me that  the “whole” duck included a long neck and head attached. We then stood in the taxi line for 10 minutes with our 10 bags of groceries and were whisked home in another 10 minutes.

We unpacked and put everything away and were both so exhausted that we sank into the sofa to “read,” where Mike woke up from a dead sleep in the pitch dark at 7:30 pm.  I had somewhere along the line staggered to our bedroom and was also dead asleep.  So he fixed a couple of omelets for a late dinner, and now it’s just after 9 pm, and I’m writing YOU!

So that’s a tiny glimpse into a Singapore Saturday for us, and weirdly, it’s all starting to seem somewhat normal.

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Toilet Tax

Our SP Services bill arrived today. In Singapore, the water, electric, gas, and garbage fees are all billed through Singapore Power on one statement. That’s convenient.  It’s also moderately easy to set up an automatic payment from a bank account, so the bill comes in, the money goes out, no muss, no fuss.  Efficient Singapore.   (Sometimes “Efficient Singapore” becomes a little frustrating.  There are so many things that just work well that it is extra frustrating when you encounter something that doesn’t work so well.  Going to the bank takes a minimum of 30 minutes, and it may require 20 minutes in the first line before you get to the second, 30 minute line. I frequently have to stand in the first line to find out what second line to stand in. Getting a sim card with minutes for a cheap mobile phone is just a trip around the corner to the local Seven Eleven, but it requires your original passport, and nothing at all can be done if the national phone registration system is down.)

There is an unexpected line item on the power bill:

Sanitary Appliance Fee – 2 Fittings – $5.61

Simply put, this is the toilet tax.  $2.8037 for every john in the house.  Lots of bedrooms with their own bathrooms?  Big toilet tax.

Oh, and there’s a 7% tax (GST – goods and services tax) on the tax. Efficient, especially in the matter of taxes.

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Guys from Singapore

Last week was full of client meetings in Johannesburg, and my presentations got better as the week wore on.  At our last meeting, one  attendee asked whether we had an ulterior motive in visiting them. “Your company never sends two guys from Singapore to deepest, darkest Africa without asking for something.”  Well, yes, of course we’d be very happy for them to adopt our technology; we’re proud of it and we think it is an excellent path into the future of payments.

But, what really struck me was his phrase.  I’ve been a guy from California. I’ve been one of the guys from global products.  All that seemed pretty normal, at least after a while. But being one of the Guys from Singapore seemed like a graduation into the world of fiction.  Somerset Maugham, E.M.Forster, Graham Greene, maybe even George Orwell, could have written
Two Men From Singapore.

During our years in San Francisco, it felt like every day there was a new gift; there was always something new and unique to discover. In Singapore, it’s slightly different. It feels like every day is a small step deeper into the exotic. Much of the day feels profoundly familiar. I sit at my desk in a small cubicle and listen to the low hum of air con (or, as I used to know it, A/C). But when I call a colleague, it’s a call to Japan or Australia or South Africa and I have to check the time zone and mentally prepare for the accent. When I go to lunch, I have to think outside the Burger King / Subway box.  When I cross the street, I have to look right first, then left, then be ready to navigate through a flood of people.  When I reach into my wallet, I have to expect to see bills in a rainbow of colors other than green.


We have a problematic client. The team dealing with this client seems unable to see or deal with the root of the problem – which should be a straightforward matter of communication. In a typically direct American way, I sent a few emails saying that we need to call a meeting, sit across a table, and ask in no uncertain terms what’s up. That’s just the way we do things. My colleague – the other guy from Singapore, who is in fact Singaporean – gently reminded me that in Asia we might be better served by an Asian approach. We invite one or two of the client’s key people to go with us for a few drinks after work, maybe have dinner, and eventually, gradually, gently, somewhat indirectly, we ask what they have in mind and suggest what might be good steps for us to cooperate in getting the process on track.

Business predicated on relationship building and not the other way around.

One guy from Singapore slowly learning how things work in this part of the world.

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Friday, December 2, 2011:  Mike’s been in Singapore two months.  And it’s almost five weeks for me.

Already Mike’s been to Tokyo twice, and he just returned from Melbourne, Australia last night.  At 2 am (tonight) we both jump on Singapore Air for Johannesburg, South Africa.  This is another business trip, and lucky for me, this trailing spouse gets to trail along.   Ten hours flying, six time zones.  We’ll have one day to explore Johannesburg together before Mike goes to work on Monday, and we return next Saturday.  The following week, Mike heads to Hong Kong.

As Mike keeps saying, “Life has entered the crazy zone.”  The travel is a little more intense than we had planned, but it may let up some after next summer.  Mike’s loving all this, and I’m growing to like much of it.

Time in Asia:  Two months down, 22 months to go.

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