Proud to be Singaporean

Mar 2015 Coogee Sunrise without Sun-10

Last Monday morning, I woke up early to try catch the sunrise at Coogee. It wasn’t to be. The clouds were thick and grey, low over the horizon. For the briefest moment, I saw a silver of orange in the far horizon, then it was obscured.

As I walked back to the car, I glanced at my phone and saw an email from my aunt in DC. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, had passed away at 3:18am Singapore time, about when I was struggling with my camera and the light. The gloomy weather seemed wholly appropriate then.

It’s odd. Along with many other Singaporeans who have taken to online forums, blogs, and social media vocalizing their bereavement this past week, I’ve been surprised at the extent of my sense of loss. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life now living outside of Singapore, and can’t honestly say that I’ve kept up with politics back home. I took the opportunity though, to re-read his tomes, starting with The Singapore Story. I’ve read it a couple times over the years, but this time I had a much fuller and deeper appreciation of his and his team’s struggle. It took true visionaries to bring Singapore to where it is today, and testament to this fact is the long list of world leaders who have, over the past week, written touching tributes about the full life of Mr. Lee.

Maybe it’s my upbringing in a Chinese school (established by the government in 1956, in the midst of the Chinese Middle School Riots to allow non-communist students to continue their study) that critics’ charges that Mr. Lee and his government was needlessly autocratic never resonated with me. In fact, his government’s policies about the length of young men’s hair or chewing gum paled in comparison to the rules we had to subscribe to in school: girls’ skirts had to be at least an inch below the knee; their bangs had to be an inch above the eyebrows; white canvas school shoes had to be white washed with no stripes; boys had to wear neutral colored underpants. We also had detailed regulations about the type of watches we could wear, down to the specific design and size, as well as bags that we could carry – backpacks, in dark colors and brand patches had to be less than 5% of the surface volume. In any case, my classmates and I survived school, and I can’t say that we were the worse for those rules. If anything, we now chuckle fondly about the times we were punished for the many little infractions we managed to chalk up.

So, last week was a sad week for Singapore and Singaporeans. But, it was also a heart-warming week. In recent years, the online chatter has been that of complaints – about our lack of civil liberties, about the dominant one party, about whatever lah. But last week, the previously silent majority spoke up, and by gosh, the outpouring of acknowledgments and gratitude to his life’s work was phenomenal. Mr. Lee’s life-long dream was to work towards a Singapore where its citizens felt pride as one people, one nation. Last week, we paid tribute to his memory by doing exactly that. I spent many hours poring over the dozens of well written and thoughtful eulogies by world leaders, respected journalists, citizens, and his family.

This week and onwards though, it’s time to put the goodbyes aside. The best way we can honor his memory is to try to live life as he did.

Enjoying Aussie Wines

In our move, from Chicago to Singapore to Sydney temp housing, to our current rental, we have managed to lose our prized collection of waiter’s cockscrews. Boo! Pretty bumped about that, particularly since I had a beloved on that PS got me more than 10 years ago from him study abroad in Paris.

Ah well, on the bright side, Australian wines are mostly screw caps. And that’s mostly what we’ve been drinking. So we haven’t needed to utilize any of our implements at all.

It has been fun tasting our way through wines here. Our huge wine fridge from home has arrived, along with the rest of our furniture, but we’ve been guzzling down wine at a faster pace than we can load up, a good problem to have.

One recent night, we popped open a bottle of Pewsy Single Select Chardonnay, a full bodied, smooth and buttery liquid gold that was such a pleasure to wash down with homemade hearty chicken noodle soup.

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I poured the dregs of it into the saucepan of mince pork and carrots, celery, garlics and onion. Then opened up a bottle of Holm Oak Pinot Noir from Tasmania to round off the dinner.

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My favorite red, and I think I can say this unequivocally, is a silky smooth and soft and blush-red Pinot. With a heady bouquet of freshly turned wet earth, strawberries and chocolate covered cherries. It dances on your tongue, the wine; supple and vivacious. And the finish: quiet but lingering, and you wait for it to fade out before picking up the glass again. This Holm Oak Pinot, while it doesn’t quite get up there on my list of favorites, provides quite a bit of bang for the buck. Yummers.

A swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling weekend

The weather forecast this weekend was somewhat iffy. We weren’t going to let that stop us though. Late afternoon Saturday, we put on our swimmers and headed south to Marouba to check out the tidal pool, Mahon Pool.

The pool itself isn’t large, but wow, is that location gorgeous! The tide was in, so the crashing waves against the rocks into the pool made for a dramatic setting. The water was very brisk, so we kept on the move. After about a half hour though, we quickly toweled off as the sun had started to lose its intensity and a strong breeze picked up. Please don’t let summer be really over yet!

Drove down to La Perouse, where we were meeting some friends for dinner at Driftwood by the Bay. Had a bit of time before sundown, so we walked over to Bare Island again. Haha, again, there was a whole group of wedding and engagement couples scattered about the island, posing this way and that for their teams of photographers and lighting crew. We enjoyed a short stroll around, then lounged at the restaurant and watched the sun set over yet another beautiful day in Sydney.

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It was very overcast Sunday morning when we woke up, but we felt hopeful as we made the hour drive up to Clareville near Palm Beach. The sun did peek out intermittently through the clouds though. Small meetup group today, with an even mix of rentals and BYO kayaks.

Mar 2015 Palm Beach Kayak-5

Alas, it was quite gusty out on the water today. Combined with the fact that some members of the group were completely new to kayaking, meant that we abandoned the plan to paddle up to Palm Beach. Instead, we made do with paddling just around the Clareville area. Still, it was nice to be out on the water, and we did get in some workout battling the wind!

After a hearty fish and chips meal with the group, Jeff and I deliberated about whether to head straight home, or stop by Shelly Beach in Manly for a bit of a snorkel. Ultimately, we decided on the latter. Never mind that grey clouds still loomed threateningly overhead. We were already a bit damp anyway!

Awesome decision! The water was quite cold, and the visibility not the best, but we had a blast floating about anyway, looking at all the different species of fish and kelp we’re not familiar with. We saw a gigantic Eastern Blue Groper, a big flat head resting in the sand, a stingray nestled in the sand between the kelp, and a school of little fishes that swayed in the current just at the edge of the kelp. And, as we started finning our way back towards the beach, we spied a meter-long juvenile dusky whaler shark swimming out of the cove, in the direction of a group of shore divers we had just seen moments before. Hehe, both Jeff and I followed its movement with glee, then when it disappeared off into deeper waters, we broke above the surface to whoop and cheer.

Can’t wait to get back into the waters again next weekend!

A Short South Coogee Stroll

Last Sunday afternoon, itching for something to do outside, we decided to head over to Coogee for a short stroll before taking a dip in Wylie’s Pool.

Coogee was definitely a lot more crowded than the first time we visited, especially since it was early morning then and drizzly. It was a glorious day out this time, and the ocean a brilliant blue, filled with surfers and swimmers.

We elected to walk south of Coogee instead, a choice that led us away from the crowds. The view was still spectacular though, and we wondered if the lucky occupants of the luxurious cliff-side homes ever tired of it.

Mar 2015 Coogee Walk-11

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A swimmer at Wylie’s Bath braving the surf at high tide

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Afterwards, we hopped in for a bit of a swim in Wylie’s Baths. Heh this was our first time swimming in a tidal pool, and we weren’t sure what to expect. Certainly not clumps of insidious sea urchins lying about the rocky floor! What was super duper cool though, was the octopus I saw swimming along with me as I stroked my way down the outer edge of the pool. When I dove deeper to have a look, it wedged itself into a crevice, where it stayed for quite a while. I returned to the spot a few more times in between my laps, just to peer again at it winking its suckers at me. :) Now that our stuff from Chicago has finally arrived, including our snorkel gear, we can’t wait to check out more tidal pools. Jeff’s gonna bring his wetsuit and skin suit the next time though; the 22 deg waters was too chilly for him!

Faust at the Sydney Opera House

Caught our first opera of the season, Faust, at the Sydney Opera House. Great evening out! The cast, headed by the young but fast rising American star tenor Michael Fabiano (of the 2007 The Audition fame), was uniformly strong. What a treat! With the exception of Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes whom we saw as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Lyric, we’d never heard of the rest of the singers before. But we will definitely be watching out for them now!

We enjoyed the visuals too – Jeff preferred this staging to the one we saw in Santa Fe, although it’s hard if not impossible to beat the electric atmosphere that stormy evening in Santa Fe, where the winds were howling and lightning flashing in the background of the backless theatre as Mephistopheles did his dramatic entrance, cape snapping in the wind.

Truth be told, I’ve always found the plot a little problematic. Why does Faust leave Maraguerite if he’s that in love with her? And how does she receive salvation for the murder of her baby in the end? Regardless, the music is its saving grace. I had to consciously stop myself from bobbing my head along at the many catchy arias and choruses.

SMH’s review here:

Faust review: Michael Fabiano leads a devilishly good ensemble
February 18, 2015
Harriet Cunningham

Sex and Religion. It’s a potent combination, and never more so than when amplified by confused 19th century morality and lurid iconography. Add in Gounod’s lush melodies and a no-expenses-spared staging – thank you, Opera Conference – and all you need to achieve ecstasy, be it religious and/or sexual, is a great ensemble cast. Happily, Opera Australia has one, and on opening night they delivered with the grand munificence of a jewel-bearing Mephistopheles.

Faust is a well-trodden tale: man gets old, gets bored, sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a bit more fun. It’s all about pleasure now (and pain later, but let’s ignore that…). In Gounod’s version, based on Goethe’s play, Mephistopheles closes the deal by showing Faust a beautiful young girl – Marguerite – and promising she will be his.

The production’s original director, Sir David McVicar, serves up Gounod’s heavy-handed messages of guilt and redemption with an extravagant but deadpan theatricality – shafts of light, heavenly voices, wings and the ubiquitous organ solo. It’s almost absurd, at times, but then so is the diabolical side of the coin, complete with pitchforks, smoke and flames. What saves it from parody is the underlying setting, evoked by Charles Edwards’ painterly set design. We are in a theatre, Mephistopheles and Faust are in a theatre, church is theatre, and it’s all a grand and deftly handled performance, which invites not just ridicule but also reflection.

Theatricality is everywhere. The chorus revel in their crowd scenes, the audience revels in a picture-perfect ballet sequence plus a generous dose of dirty dancing. Revival choreographer Daphne Strothmann draws electric performances from the colourful troupe of showgirls, furies and demons.

Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire gives a pacy reading of Gounod’s expansive score, holding the many elements together with great facility and drawing a keen, urgent sound from the orchestra which will hopefully find greater focus during the season.

As for the voices, this is luxury casting indeed: Mephistopheles is a gift of a role, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes grabs it whole-heartedly. Physically and vocally, it’s a great match. Nicole Car continues to impress with her even yet passionate tone. Marguerite is a tough challenge, musically and dramatically, but she shatters those top notes with a dazzling but never harsh focus, managing to make grand opera intimate. Giorgio Caoduro, making his role debut as Valentin, stops time with his moving aria ‘Avant de quitter…’, a highlight of the show.

And then there’s American tenor Michael Fabiano as Faust. Fabiano is clearly headed for great things, a magnetic stage presence, convincing in all his myriad guises. His voice is huge and, if anything, it feels like he holds back, hitting the top notes with relative ease but not giving every note full weight. Vocally, his performance grows in intensity and richness towards the end of the opera, but even at the climax I suspect he has plenty in reserve. Watch this space.

A Tale of No Internet

Trying to get internet in Australia is worse than talking to Comcast back in the States. Who would have thought? But so it is.

We’ve been trying for the past 6 weeks to get Internet. Paid one provider for a modem and right before they came to set up service, they said oops, there are no more available pipes in your area. It then took another 3 weeks for them to refund us the money.

Found provider #2. Took them 3 weeks to come out. Attempt #1: “We came but no one was home”. Er hello no one rang the doorbell. Attempt #2: “Oh your work order doesn’t specify the unit number. We have to change it before we can install”. Attempt #3: No one came by; I had the door propped open. Waited on the phone for over an hour before I was finally patched through. Then waited again while they tried to hunt down the dispatch unit. And what do you know? They said, oh the same crew came out again this morning but no one was home. Hello? If it was the same crew, they would have known where our front door was – and it was open!

I had lost my cool with the operator after attempt #1, but kept it this time since I’ve more or less lost faith in the whole process. This hapless operator told me that the earliest he could reschedule was for March 23, but I pressed him to escalate up to his supervisor. Another 10 minutes later, we managed to set a fourth attempt for this Friday. So, developing story. We’ll see, but at this juncture, I’m no longer holding my breath.

Mosman to Waverton Walk

Mosman to Waverton Walk

Officially, it’s the second day of autumn already. Man, time flies, a little too quickly! This morning, I decided to do a little urban exploration of north Sydney area. Took the bus over to the Spit / Military Road junction, then walked down to Mosman Bay. There were lots of cute little cafes and stores along Military Road, though I didn’t stop to linger.

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The quiet little marina by Mosman Bay. I’m a little sad that summer is officially over, but it was nice walking in slightly cooler temperatures.

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Peeking out into Mosman Bay

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Doing the Cremorne Point Loop. These gorgeous houses have the most stunning view

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Oasis in the middle of the city

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View of the iconic opera house and harbor bridge at the foot of Cremorne Point

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After Cremorne Point, there wasn’t any nice waterfront trails from Neutral Bay to Milsons Point, so I strolled along leafy avenues, past stately mansions with million dollar water views, till I hit Luna Park. There are always people milling about outside the park, since it is situated right by the water with a great view of the opera house and the harbor bridge, but I’ve never seen anyone taking any rides. I wonder how it survives.

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I walked past Luna Park, along Lavender Bay, and then cut across to Blues Point Road, where I grabbed a much welcome coffee and a pick-me-up of toasted banana bread slathered with butter. After, I finished the walk through Waverton Oval and Berrys Bay to the Waverton Station.

In all, about a 11km (6.9mile) stroll. While the scenery wasn’t as dramatic as the Bondi to Coogee walk (got to redo that one again!), it was a quiet and peaceful one. As far as urban walks go, it’s definitely up there!

Kayaking Wrecks of Homebush Bay

Wreck of Homebush Bay by Brent Pearson

Wreck of Homebush Bay by Brent Pearson

Sunday: We were originally signed up for a walk of the Blue Mountains with one of the meetup groups, but at the last minute, Jeff had to catch up on work. I didn’t really want to take the drive myself and so instead decided spontaneously to join the kayaking meetup group on a paddle of Homebush Bay along the Parramatta River.

Another stunningly blue and hot day (although, as I write, the weather has suddenly turned. Thick billowing clouds are churning overhead, kicking up swirls of dry leaves) out on the water. We were going to see the famed wrecks of Homebush Bay.

In 1966, the Maritime Services Board set up a shipwreck yard to house old ships that had served the first and second world wars. These vessels are now shells of their former glory. Most rest partially submerged in river, with mangrove trees taking root on rusted iron hulls. We glided amongst them silently, as if in respect to their age and service. Check out this article that speaks more about the history of each ship.

Good short workout. After, we mingled for a bit at the pizza place down the street.

Enjoying a glass (or two) of Barossa GSM

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We have a little wine shop right by our train station. Its family run, and their selection is mostly Aussie centric. They are a really nice bunch though, very helpful, and whenever we pop in to pick something up for dinner, they are always quick with a suggestion. Best of all, they don’t upsell. I went in the other day to buy a bottle we could bring to ny aunt’s place (or first cousin once removed if you will). I asked for a recommendation of something in the $30 range, but they kept on gushing about this $16 Light & Finniss Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro (GSM) 2012 from Barossa Valley.

Intrigued, I bought this back for ourselves. Decided to open it tonight. What a treat! What a find! One of the tastiest wines we have had here to date, especially at this value. Very plush, soft, and refreshing, with just a hint of spiciness of the shiraz and mouvedre at the end. Will just have to pick up a few more bottles!