Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two icons in one go

Read online this morning that Farrah Fawcett lost her long battle with cancer age 62

and then conflicting reports about Michael Jackson. Apparently overnight he had a cardiac arrest and may have died already.

The end of an era...

BBC is now reporting BBC NEWS >>
Singer Michael Jackson 'dies'
Pop star Michael Jackson dies in Los Angeles at the age of 50, after suffering a suspected cardiac arrest, reports say.

And we're off


Monday, June 22, 2009

'Where you from?'

'Where you from?'

It's a question asked here by the kids who wander the temples and streets of tourist areas plying their goods. It's asked to lead you into a short conversation that is meant to show you how good their English is and butter you up with their sweetness.

'Hello. Where you from?'

New Zealand'

'The capital of New Zealand -Wellington'

'Wow thats pretty good. Your English is pretty good too'

'Yes I go school in morning/evening (depending on what time of day you have run into them). It costs lot of money to go to school. I have to pay teacher. You buy book/bracelet from me money for school.'

Of course most don't go to school at all. As I think I've said before in another post, they are much too valuable as cute little income generators to their parents or minders.

But that really isn't what this post is about.

That question: 'Where you from?' is a loaded question for someone like me.

Where am I from?

When it has been asked by a grubby half pint totting books in a basket half his size I sometimes answer, 'You mean where was I born or where do I live?' I usually get a cheeky grin as they try, 'Where you live?'

Phnom Penh', I say.

Yeah right! Is the look I get, accompanied by a nervous giggle.

'True' I say 'I've lived in Phnom Penh for a year. Maybe you mean where was I born?'

'Yes', they try again.

'England', I say.

'The capital England-London', in a triumphant tone.

And thats where the conversation ends because the answer to that question, 'Where you from?' is - well- it's a bit complicated.

An American friend asked me the same question at the gym the other day. She had just worked out I was a kiwi not an Aussie, as she had previously assumed.

'So, where abouts in New Zealand are you from?'

The answer goes something like this:

I was born in Birmingham, England just as my father finished his PhD at Birmingham University.

But thats not where I'm from.

I was 6 weeks old when we moved to Makassar, Indonesia.

But thats not where I'm from.

I started school in Singapore.

But thats still not where I'm from.

I spent my formative years in Asia before my parents moved us 'home' to New Zealand.

Now we're getting somewhere.

Both my parents are Kiwis, one from the middle of the North Island and one from the deep South. We moved to Wellington where I went to high school. Where I expected I would feel like I was where I belonged, where I fit in, 'home' but instead felt different, an outsider. A typical feeling for a third culture kid but noone used that term back then.

When I'd finished high school I moved to Palmerston North to go to Massey University where I met J and we had B and later M. We eventually bought a house in 'Palmy' which we still own but will almost certainly never live in again. In fact, although Palmerston North, New Zealand, is the place I have lived in for the longest period in my life and although it was once 'home', it is still not where I come from.

The house we lived in in Wellington isn't 'home' either, mum and dad moved over the hill to Masterton more than 10 years now- to a house I have never lived in, a house with no childhood memories, a house that is theirs-but not mine. Our old house became 'our old house', home to someone else.

I am a Kiwi. No doubt about that. I am a New Zealander. I carry a New Zealand passport (although I could carry a British passport too if I ever wanted/ needed to).

Where am I from?
Definately here (in the picture above) - but where is 'home'? Well, its New Zealand too. All of New Zealand. And 'home' is also here- Phnom Penh- where my family are (yes we even have a room for B although he hasnt actually used it yet it is refered to as B's room). And when we move on, well that will become 'home' too in a remarkably short period of time.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Da Vinci in Singapore

Last time we were in Singapore M took me to the Science Centre. He had been earlier in the school year on an MUN (Model United Nations) conference and was pretty sure he could remember how to get there. We took the MRT to Jurong East. Easy so far. But then, in the absence of any signage or map what so ever (most MRT stations have huge 'you are here' maps of the vicinity) took off in the wrong direction without any protection from the blazing sun, across two busy roads and ended up in the IMM building, sweat dripping down our backs. After cooling down a bit we retraced our steps through the bottom of a busy HDB and onto another intersection where we saw our first sign, right outside the entrance to the Science Centre. Not very tourist friendly but then I guess most simply take a taxi.

We bought combination Science Centre /Da Vinci Exhibition tickets for 16SD (me) and 11SD (for M) and had a bit of a nosey around the different rooms in the Science Centre, virtually pushing buttons and changing screens, bouncing lights, chasing images.

I think we learned a thing or two too. We ended up at the 'electric chair' which for a dollar will vibrate your clenched hands till they refuse to unclench and produce uncontrollable giggling from M.

Then we headed to the Da Vinci Machines Exhibit.

We couldnt take photos inside the exhibition so I snapped this one of M at the shop.

I was fascinated. There were about 60 models, recreated using the materials of da Vinci's time (wood, cotton, iron, cord and brass) by a team of Florentine artisans in collaboration with academics, physicists and historians accompanied by a series of informative panels some of which included actual images of the original design.

There were war machines, flying machines, nautical and hydraulic machines, life size and models as well as devices made to illustrate the principles of mechanics. Most of the machines had a 'hands off sign' beside them but a small section invited you to try- which of course we did. A man born before his time, not only was he a master painter he was a sci fi freak, able to imagine future possibilities; flying machines, helicopters, scuba divers and automation. Just imagine if he'd been able to make movies!

The second half of the exhibition included digital reproductions of some of his most famous paintings including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

The Mona Lisa has just been the subject of a rather different research technique called Lumiere technology. The painting was scanned with a 240-megapixel Multi-spectral Imaging Camera, invented by French engineer Pascal Cotte, which uses 13 wavelengths from ultraviolet light to infrared. The resulting images peel away centuries of varnish and other alterations until we are able to see how the Mona Lisa appeared to da Vinci and his contemporaries. You can see an eyelash and some eyebrow hair (apparently it was a cause for concern previously, considering da Vinci's fascination for human biology, that you couldn't in the painting we see today), a finger not completely finished (a painter like da Vinci never completely finished a painting as that would indicate he thought it done when he would always say things could be improved), a blotch on the corner of the eye and chin that were thought to indicate she was sick are, in fact, varnish accidents, a hand protectively over a rounded belly is unveiled to be actually keeping a slipping blanket in place.

There are others too like the fact she was originally painted with a more 'pronounced', although still enigmatic, smile. Da Vinci, with his intimate knowledge of human biology, knew that when a viewer first looked at his famous painting they would most likely look directly at the subjects eyes, as humans are drawn to a persons eyes initially. Their peripheral vision, which is not as fine tuned to detail as the fovea, would distinguish the shadows in the corners of the sitters mouth as a smile. When the viewers gaze moves to the mouth, however, the smile is 'gone' giving the Mona Lisa her mysterious 'is she smiling or isnt she' expression.

As I said- fascinated.

This is a touring exhibition, if it comes to your town go and see it!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

B. splendens and the Labyrinth

Siamese Fighting Fish are kind of like a guppy with an incredibly extended tail and dorsal fins, waving like the multinational flags on the banks of the Tonle Sap. They’ve been bred over the years from a natural plain-ness to an iridescent brilliance and kept in separate containment because as their name suggests they are aggressive little blighters and so can not be trusted to leave a cell mate alone. One dull green or gray fish in a bowl does not a Feng Shui cure make so they were engineered to become little spots of much more interesting colour.

These ones are at the bottom of the escalator in Plaza Singapura in tiny rectangular tanks side by side like a fishy bookcase. There are black plastic dividers between their watery homes so they don't wear each other out stalking up and down the glass sides like hungry penned in tigers.

They’re like miniature sociopaths, males, when put together will attack each other, and if placed in a confined space with a female, will attack her if she’s not in the breeding mood.

According to Burkes Backyard they are as uptight as they are because their native habitat is usually so small; rice paddies, stagnant ponds, roadside drains even the puddle left in a dent made by a buffalo hoof after the rain, that there is not room for two dominant males. Evolution has thus, through a constant game of 'mines sharper than yours', breed a species so aggressive they are often pit against each other in a similar way to cock fighting rings here in South East Asia.

The Betta Splendens also possess, I discovered according to the same source, supplemental breathing apparatus (other than the normal gills) called the 'labyrinth.' Located in a chamber above the gills it is supplied with blood vessels which absorb the air gulped in through the mouth allowing the fish to survive in such a tiny environment even in stagnation.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The big screen

One of the first things we check when we are in Singapore is the movie listings. We are all pretty keen movie goers but M is a real movie buff able to remember names and dates as well as whole clumps of its script after just one screening. He appreciates intricate plot diversion, subtle story nuances, artistic camera angles and an emotive score. He will see a movie on account of it's producer, director or screen writer as well as its leading actor. He seeks out its written version if its an adaptation and relishes the different interpretations, good and bad, of remakes. He follows the careers of the film makers of just about every genre available. We have had to field amused questions from adults when a much too young to know M has tried to engage them in detailed conversation about the hidden meaning a film's (or a book's for that matter as he is just as passionate about the written word) narration or the reasons behind subtle dialogue pitches or scene executions.

His appreciation for the dramatic arts became apparent when he was about 2 and able to sit enthralled in front of a dvd his brother had given up on an hour before. I took him to his first big screen movie when he was about 2 1/2 where I noticed he was one of the rare few still seated who hadnt been bribed with food and fizzy drink. On the way home after the movie he sat in his car seat next to his brother trying to engage B in conversation about the story they had just seen...using whole paragraphs of script.

He read The Da Vinci Code when he was 10 and realised that many stories have more than one meaning and that some were riddled with symbols that took the reader or the watcher into a whole other world. He was lucky enough to have an English teacher this year who recognised his (and some classmates) passionate response to fiction and actively encouraged often lively debate on the symbolic meanings and characterisations in stories such as 'The Outsiders'(which I read in school), 'Animal Farm' (which he already knew intimately having played Squealer in a Centrestage production in Singapore), 'Lord of the Flies' (which he'd read of his own volition about a year before) and 'Gattaca'. She gamely listened to sometimes wild theories, as long as they were well thought out and backed up with evidence, and encouraged 'reading around' the topics discussed. A feat almost solely limited to the internet in a country with only one new book bookstore although I did manage to find him 'The Communist Manifesto' (in the interests of research for Lord of the Flies I think) in one of our two second hand book bookstores. I almost wished I was 15 again...almost.

As luck would have it JJ Abrams (the creator of 'Lost', the ultimate fodder in wild theoretical diversions) lastest offering, the prequal Star Trek, was just opening at Cathay Cineleisure so armed with the essential ingredients of an enjoyable Singapore cinema experience we booked our seats online and waited for J to finish work.

J and I managed to squeeze in Angels and Demons on our last day albeit from the middle of the front row (thank God for earplugs!) as the free wifi that pervades Singapore was not playing nice that day and unable to book seats online we had to race to make the only sitting, which at midday on Saturday, was full.

For those that need to know
Those essential ingredients of movie watching in Singapore are; long pants and a pashmina or two (the aircon is arctic)...

earplugs (the decibel level is damaging and we only have room for one Deafie in our family)...

a slushie (smuggled in from the 7/11 downstairs) and Wonkas Gobstoppers (the closest thing the world has to Tangyfruits now-RIP).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I heart Singapore

I heart Singapore.

We have just spent another few days in Singapore courtesy of a work visit for J, some cheap airfares and a rollaway in his double room. It wasn’t a planned visit but gave M a chance to attend an end of school (his old Singapore school) barbeque at a friend’s place, see a movie or two and stock up on books for the next couple of months. Singapore is still very much a home for all of us. It is a familiar stamping ground with favourite haunts and eats and we can all be independent something thats hard to do in Phnom Penh where it takes time to negotiate traffic and we juggle a car and driver between home, work and school commitments.

For me Singapore is a part of my childhood, familiar, dependable and as comfortable as pulling on a favourite tee-shirt. Despite it's rapid development from the kampongs of the 70's to the massive HDB blocks and streamlined contemporary condominiums of today, from the tarpaulin wet markets and roaming street food carts to the shockingly expensive musk melons and imported caviar of FairPrice Finest it still holds vivid memories in its smells and colourful nooks and crannies. So when I found myself alone on Friday afternoon I took a stroll down memory lane.
I popped out of the MRT at Dhoby Ghaut and walked through Plaza Singapura (oft visited for its huge Spotlight store) with my 'back in the day' tinted glasses perched on my nose. Yohan Plaza (as it was in those days) was our short cut to Orchard Road and Orchard Road Presbyterian Church where dad was one of the ministers for a few years. It was also our closest source of cool air and at Christmas time held windows of Santas and elves hard at work in their workshops. Across the intersection sits the now dwarfed Presbyterian church, still dressed in white and terracotta just like the pictures stored in my memory banks.

Orchard Road Presbyterian Church was founded in 1856 for the Scottish business community in Singapore. The first church building was completed in 1878. Over the years it developed from an English speaking congregation, and thus an English service, to one that supports four different language congregations. When we lived in Singapore, from the mid to late 70s, there was an English and a Mandarin language service held every sunday.

I was going to go in and take some more photos but apart from the 'Trespassers will be Prosecuted' sign on the side gate I noticed this on the half closed front gate

'No Photography' and 'This Premises is under Survellance Camera'.

Not very friendly for a church but then not many churches have a murder story in their history. It happened after our time and I only stumbled across it one day while waiting too long for J in a bookshop stocked with mostly education texts. I had picked up a book on Singapores ghost stories and there it was, 'The Curry Murder' on Orchard Road.

The story goes that a Mr Ayakannu Marithamuthu was not only murdered, on 12 December 1984 at the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church, but his body was then cooked in curry before being disposed of. Marithamuthu, wife beater and father of three, worked as a caretaker at the holiday chalets at Changi. His wife worked at Orchard Road Presbyterian. She and her three brothers grew tired of all the violence and hatched a plan to kill Marithamuthu and dispose of the body. After the brothers bludgeoned him to death they chopped him up into tiny pieces (one of the boys was a butcher) that Naragatha, his now widow, cooked into a curry which she put into several plastic bags. The boys added the gory bags to rubbish piles all over the island just before the rubbish truck was due cleverly disposing of any incriminating evidence.

Initially, Naragatha and her brothers were charged with murder but as there was insufficient evidence against them and they were acquitted the same year. The brothers were rearrested the same day but again unconditionally released a few years later, in 1991, as still noone could prove who had actually committed the murder. The cooking pot in which the bloody curry was cooked was never found.

But I digress.

The road we lived in

runs up the hill behind Plaza Singapura and the old Cathay.

Some of the street looks much as it was (apart from the cool contemporary colours!)

And some of it looks like it really hasnt changed at all

Nearly there.

The house on the left is what our house looked like...which is important because

It's not there anymore. Instead, at 132 Sophia Road, the church has this red and white block of flats, 'Presbyterian Church House'. The fence is the same though and the apartment block nextdoor is too. I clearly remember catching the school bus on the 'hump' and the 'children crossing' sign outside our place and that long tall hedge which is the back of Istana, the official residence and office of S.R Nathan, the President of Singapore.

It took a long time, as I recall, to get from our place to the old Tanglin School (now a fancy international school too pricey for M) on the heart bus in my brown and cream checkered uniform with matching knickers which were periodically checked to make sure they were indeed regulation. I remember swinging on the huge iron gate that used to hang on the fence-although looking at how tall the fence is now the gate couldn't have been that big really. There was a school nextdoor with a rooster that was so enamoured of my pet hen he would sit on the fence for hours crowing his affections. We had a well in our back yard which, to my mothers absolute horror, I nearly fell down one day and some rooms where some students lived. Behind our house there was a water canal which held an endless supply of tadpoles during the rainy season, a bamboo 'forest' where we rescued a wild kitten and a kampong full of the constant noise of daily life. 132 Sophia Road looks much quieter now!

Back at the insection I walked up Mount Sophia Road to this place...

...which used to be Trinity Theological College where dad taught while we were in Singapore. The college itself has moved way out to Dairy Farm Road and as this newspaper article explains the distinctive chapel, that's roof is the shape of the Chinese character for 'man', is now home to an Art Hub housing creative tenants; a digital animation studio, an advertising agency, an artists studio, a photography studio and a video production house.

And then it was back down the hill

and back onto Selegie Road

past the peanut man- they were much better hot and out of newspaper cones-

and back into Plaza Singapura, memory lane satisfied.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chhouk gets a new foot

Remember this little guy?

Yesterday the Phnom Penh Post reported that Chhouk the 4 year old baby elephant that we saw on our trip to Tamao with my parents, when they were here in February, was yesterday fitted with what is the third prosthetic foot made for an elephant. A Thai elephant named Motola was the first to receive the treatment in 2006 after stepping on a landmine. Chhouk's new $30 000USD foot was made by the Cambodian School of Prosthesis and Orthtotics (CPSO). For months now Wildlife Alliance has been raising money to fund the foot and the feet that will be needed as Chhouk grows into a full size elephant.
CSPO is an educational center where students from the region can learn how to prescribe, manufacture and fit artificial limbs and orthopedic braces. In their spare time they have generously volunteered their knowledge to make Chhouk's artificial foot. In the article, Cathy Mc Connell who headed up the project admitted she wasnt sure if Cambodia could pull it off due to such limited resources but the students were keen and enjoyed being challenged by the unusual task.

(photo from the Phnom Penh Post)

According to Phnom Tamao's elephant keeper of 10 years, Try Sitheng, with his new foot, 'Chhouk loves to run through the forest with Lucky (his older elephant pal) on the hunt for jungle fruits. Without his shoe he walks very slowly. With his shoe he can run very well. He plays with Lucky and puts the sand on his head. I think he is very happy when he has a foot like that.'

'Nothing has fazed the little elephant,' Nick Marx of the Wildlife Alliance was quoted. 'A lesser spirit might not have survived the ordeal, but Chhouk's resilience and personality has actually made such a difficult problem absolutely no trouble at all.'

(Dad with Chhouk in February2009)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Peaceful NZ

New Zealand is the 'Youngest country on Earth'

(Wellington at sunset )

We are 8th in the global happiness index

(Lake Wanaka)

And rank top equal (least corrupt) with Denmark and Sweden on the Corruption Perception Index

(Jacksons Bay in the South Island)

And now

New Zealand has come top in an Australian Think Tanks list of 'The worlds most peaceful places'.

(Somewhere in New Zealand)

And (after 2 and a half years) in exactly 22 days we will be on the way home for a whole 4 weeks. Of course we will need plenty of these

to survive a kiwi July but we are beyond excited...Bring it on!