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Saturday, June 26, 2004

Birthday of Twa Ya Peh

Thanks to Victor on the lead.  I went to the tentages at the empty land next to Redhill MRT.  It's the temple "Long Chuan Dian" (in Mnadarin) celebrating the birthdays of Cheng Wan (City God) and Twa Ya Peh (Mandarin: Da Er Yeh).  Da Er Yeh refer to the two Nether Gods - the tall Bai Wu Chang and the short Hei Wu Chang. 
 
The ceremonies began on Thu night when the Jade Emperor "arrived".  Since then, there have been wayang performances and this will continue for the next few days.  On Sat night, there will be "spiritual consultation" at 8:15pm.   On Monday 8:10pm, there will be a major spirit possession ceremony during which visitors are requested not to wear black clothing.    On Tuesday 10pm, there will be possession by "Ji Gong", the monk deity, who will send off the various gods, thus ending the celebrations.
 
Regards,
 
Wee Cheng

Victor Yue  wrote:
Hi Ronni,
Thanks for the tip off. I actually went cruising in my car today (took an afternoon off) looking for the now familiar taoist temple related flags and banners being put along the road leading to the celebration.
 
Saw one tentage just behind Mobil Station, along Alexandra Road. They are celebrating the birthday of "Tua Li Ya Peh". I am sure there are also quite a number in Singapore. Will try to check out the field opposite to Maxwell Food Centre (this place has already been marked for the building of a Buddhist Temple) as this is the place where there are celebrations of the birthdays of "Tua Li Ya Peh" (in Hokkien) and "San Huang Wu Ti" (in Mandarin).
 
Send your sightings to the list. (^^)
 
Victor
 

Friday, June 25, 2004

Wang Hai Da Bo Gong Temple, Shenton Way

I went to the "Fu De Ce Wang Hai Da Bo Gong" temple ("Temple of the Da Bo Gong Overlooking The Sea" & the "Shrine of Fu De") at the southern end of Shenton Way near MAS Building today. Picked up a leaflet that says that the temple will be celebrating the following events on Sunday 25 July 2004:

- 185th Anniversary of Wang Hai Do Bo Gong (1819)

- 160th Anniversary of the rebuilding of Fu De Ce (1844)

- God Mercy Birthday (Lunar Calendar 19th day of 6th Moon)

There will be a ceremony conducted by Taoist priests and a puppet opera staged. Vegetarian food will be provided from 10am to 3pm.

I thought Da Bo Gong is also Fu De Zheng Shen, so why is it that they seem to imply Fu De Ce is different from Da Bo Gong? Does anyone know?

Regards,

Wee Cheng

http://weecheng.com

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Should there be any World Heritage Sites in Singapore?

World Heritage Sites (WHS)

 

UNESCO is going to announce the latest additions to WHS end of this week or next week.  Looking at the list of more than 700 sites, I sometimes wonder if it’s difficult to qualify at all.  Although the list includes world class sites like the Great Wall and Pyramids, it also includes many lesser known ones – including a Swedish submarine base and an 18th century iron mill factory site in England.  I have been asking myself if any site in Singapore qualify. 

 

The issue of Singapore having withdrawn from UNESCO aside – we left UNESCO together with the USA years ago due to political reasons – but are there places in Singapore that merit this status? 

 

The WHS label has become a kind of ISO 9000 for historical sites.  Having a WHS in Singapore would certainly help dispel the notion that Singapore has no historical sites or heritage, and is nothing but a sterile, cultureless, soulless city with North American style infrastructure and concrete jungle.  It would also provide greater impetus and incentive to conservation of heritage in Singapore.

 

I don’t know whether any of our heritage buildings qualify in terms of UNESCO’s conservation standards and requirements.  Personally, I do think that some of our districts do qualify for their historical and anthropological value.  Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam and the Civic District are the result of colonial urban planning for a city designed as the political, military and economic capital of the British Empire in Southeast Asia.  The old bungalows and architecture of Katong / Joo Chiat area are unique products of the combination of European and Chinese building style, and was once the centre of the Peranakan, an unique culture that was the marriage of two great Asian cultures.  The combination of these can be combined into a single submission to the UNESCO, as the “Old City of Singapore”, “Historic Centre of Singapore” or “Ethnic Quarters of Colonial Singapore”.

 

Any views or insights?

 

Thursday, June 17, 2004

What are your favourite countries or regions? Name 10

What are your favourite countries or regions?  Name 10
 
Wee Cheng's Favourite Country/Regions
- Yunnan Province, China
- Peru
- Vietnam
- Italy
- Thailand
- Mongolia
- Morocco
- Spain
- Guatemala
- Turkey
 
What's yours?  Post a Comment below!

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

What's Your Top 10 in Singapore?

Here’s my list of top 10 places to see and things to do in Singapore, and top 3 weekend trips (limited to 2 days’) from Singapore. 

 

My TOP 10 places to see and things to do in Singapore:

 

1.                  Food, Food, Food!  (Maxwell & Newton hawker centres)

2.                  Exotic festivals (Thaipusam) and traditional rituals (Taoist spirit mediums)

3.                  Asian Civilisation Museum Empress Place branch

4.                  Little India (most exotic area in Singapore)

5.                  Views from the Esplanade rooftop & the National Arts Library

6.                  Architecture & food in Joo Chiat/Geylang area

7.                  Chinatown (food all year round & the Chinese New Year bazaar)

8.                  Lizards of Sungei Buloh

9.                  View from Merlion & One Fullerton

10.              Zoo & Night Safari

 

Top 3 weekenders from Singapore:

 

  1. Bangkok
  2. Kuala Lumpur
  3. Melaka food-driveup trip

 

What’s yours?  Add your list by clicking “Comments” below – and then “Post a Comment”


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Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Whose Dragon Boat Festival?

Whose Dragon Boat Festival?
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For traditional Asian culture facing same modernization challenge, China and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are both only one of the representatives, perhaps in the process of breaking through an encirclement, Dragon Boat Festival [Duan Wu] (the 5th day of the 5th lunar month) will become a shared cultural heritage in the East Asian cultural circle.

No matter whether or not the ROK applies for making Dragon Boat Festival a world cultural heritage for its own country, the topic of China's traditional national culture has once again aroused the Chinese people's attention, the ROK which is also in the same cultural circle has many things that are worthwhile for China to use as reference.

"Duan Wu as a cultural heritage" in S. Koreans' eyes
Reporter Zhang Li of the International Herald Leader stationed in Seoul reported: the news about the ROK prepared to apply for making the Dragon Boat Festival a world cultural heritage has touched off divergent opinions, then what does S. Korean Dragon Boat Festival look like? To what degree has the ROK application work proceeded? And how do S. Koreans view China's "defense of Dragon Boat Festival"?

"Jiang Ling Duan Wu Memorial Rites" applied for status as cultural heritage to boost local economy
Dragon Boat Festival, Spring Festival and Mid-autumn Festival together are the three major festivals of the ROK, Duan Wu Festival is quite popular in the eastern areas centered on Jiang Ling. There are records on the customs of spending the Dragon Boat Festival in ancient South Korean books: "The Annals of Wei" and

The Classic of ROK" which recorded ancient customs and habits.It is said that the "Jiang Ling Duan Wu Memorial Rites" has a history of more than 100 years and currently has been formed into a complete set of comprehensive activity system featuring the folk customs of the ROK, the procedures encompass "brewing nectar", "worshipping mountain god", "felling god trees", "memorial rites of welcoming gods", "sorcery of Duan Wu", and "memorial rites of seeing off gods" as well as various other activities of offering sacrifices to gods. A special official is assigned to preside over these activities.

Besides sacrificial activities, there are also swing, wrestling, masque, the pleasure of farmers, folk songs and many other folk customs, games and cultural activities. In addition, the Duan Wu memorial rites also include "disorderly sites", i.e., large markets and sites where performances regarding folk customs are staged. Because the "disorderly sites" can attract large groups of people to come for sightseeing and consumption, they are therefore regarded as one of the most important factors in applying for the status of ¡°Jiang Ling Duan Wu Memorial Rites" as a world cultural heritage.

At present, large-scale Jiang Ling sightseeing folk customs festival, centered on the "Jiang Ling Duan Wu Memorial Rites", is held by Jiang Ling City every year, which invites theatrical troupes and personages in the cultural circle from various countries to come to participate in the activity. In recent years, the city has invested more than 10 billion won in building a "Duan Wu Village" on the 6,000 -sq. m. land vacated by dismantling residents' sports grounds, its aim is to preserve and publicize this "invisible culture-related finance", create an atmosphere of applying for the status of world cultural heritage and finally boosting the Jiang Ling regional economy.

The Jiang Ling "Duan Wu Memorial Rites" of the ROK was designated as the country's "important invisible culture-related finance" in 1967. In early 2003, the Culture Finance Department of the ROK decided to report the country's No.13 "important invisible culture finance" to the UNESCO, applying for it the status as a cultural heritage. It is reported that currently the ROK has ancestral temple memorial ceremony, sacrificial rite music and traditional comic dialog, which have been granted the status as world cultural heritages by the UNESCO. Currently the S. Korean government and Jiang Ling City authority have produced propaganda trailers of 10 minutes and two hours in length respectively, a 150-page application document as well as photos and other materials, applying for the status of "Jiang Ling Duan Wu Memorial Rites" as world cultural heritages, the preparatory work of application is now drawing to an end, they are prepared to formally file an application with the UNESCO in September this year. It is reported that UNESTCO will finally decide in July 2005 on whether S. Korea's "Jiang Ling Duan Wu Memorial Ritres" will be granted the status as world cultural heritage.

S. Koreans' reaction to China's "defense of Duan Wu"
After Chinese media reported the news about the ROK ready to apply for the staus of Dragon Boat Festival as a world cultural heritage, ROK media gave rapid reaction. Chosun Iibo of the ROK published a commentary saying that although Dragon Boat Festival originated in the story about Qu Yuan in the Chu State of China, the ROK and Japan had designated Duan Wu as festival long ago. S. Korea's "Jiang Ling Duan Wu Memorial Rites" brought together dozens of sacrificial rites and folk customs and games, making them rich and grand farming cultural celebrations which have attracted world attention, that's why the ROK decided to apply for their status as world cultural heritages.

In the opinions of S. Korean scholars, the Dragon Boat Festivals of the ROK and China differ vastly. China's Dragon Boat Festival contains Dragon Boats offering sacrificial to Qu Yuan, while Jiang Ling, though located by the seaside, doesn't contain this activity. S. Korea's Duan Wu Festival contains the activity of worshipping regional renowned figures as patron saints. These scholars pointed out that at the Asia International Folk Customs Symposium in 1997 and the 2002 Seminar concerning the Drgon Boat Festival held by S. Korean, Chinese and Japanese scholars, Chinese scholars acknowledged that Jiang Ling's Duan Wu customs are different from that of China's.

According to a ROK media report, Liang Ling City and Jiang Ling Cultural Academy will take the disputes sparked by Dragon Boat Festival as an opportunity for them to publicize the actual conditions of Jiang Ling Duan Wu Memorial Rites to the International community and are ready to gather together experts, professors and other scholars to jointly study and explore countermeasures.

By People's Daily Online


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Question of culture

Question of culture
Date: 2004-05-18 00:00:00
Topic: Front Page
http://www.21stcentury.com.cn/print.php?sid=13630


FOR Chinese, it's a time for dragon boat racing and Zongzi. But across the Yellow Sea in Gangneung, South Korea, wrestling and swing play are the highlights. However, both events go by the same name ¡ª the Dragon Boat Festival ¡ª which falls on May 5 of the lunar calendar...



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FOR Chinese, it's a time for dragon boat racing and Zongzi (ôÕ×Ó). But across the Yellow Sea in Gangneung (½­Áê), South Korea, wrestling (ˤõÓ) and swing play are the highlights. However, both events go by the same name ¡ª the Dragon Boat Festival (¶ËÎç½Ú) ¡ª which falls on May 5 of the lunar calendar.

One festival, two cultures: does one nation have the right to call it its own? It has been reported that South Korea will apply (ÉêÇë) to the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ÁªºÏ¹ú½Ì¿ÆÎÄ×éÖ¯) to make the celebration in Gangneung an intangible (·ÇÎïÖʵÄ) part its cultural heritage (ÎÄ»¯ÒŲú). If successful, people from other countries may see the Dragon Festival as a Korean creation.

As the birthplace of the yearly event more than 2,000 years ago, China is not happy with the situation. "It would be a shame if another country successfully made a traditional Chinese festival part of its own cultural heritage ahead of China," said Zhou Heping, deputy culture minister. The Ministry of Culture is even thinking of making its own application to UNESCO, covering all traditional Chinese festivals, including the Dragon Boat event.

"I don't like some of the food eaten at the festival, but I am shocked by South Korea's move," said Jin Yutong, a Senior 1 student at Xi'an Senior High School. "We should better protect the cultural heritage left to us by our ancestors."

It is thought that the festival is held in memory of the great poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), who lived in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period (Õ½¹úʱÆÚ). Qu was known to be a patriot (°®¹úÕß) and admired by ordinary people.

He is said to have jumped into Miluo River, because he had lost hope in his country's future. When people heard about Qu's death, they sailed up and down the river searching for his body. They also beat the drums to frighten away fish and threw Zongzi into water. These were supposed to stop the fish touching Qu. Dragon boat racing is said to come from this search for the poet's body.

Over the years, the Dragon Boat Festival has spread throughout the world. In Japan and Viet Nam, as well as South Korea, the festival has mixed with and become part of local culture.

With this in mind, some experts say that it is meaningless to argue about which country the festival belongs to. "No one can deny that it came from China," said Long Haiqing, an expert from Hunan Province. "But if all the countries involved can protect culture heritage together, they will all benefit."

Working to protect tradition

According to UNESCO, intangible cultural heritage is represented in five ways: oral traditions and expressions, including language; performing arts; social practices, rituals (ÒÇʽ) and festivals; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship (ÊÖ¹¤ÒÕ).
"The Dragon Boat Festival, with its boat racing and eating Zongzi have been part of China's cultural heritage for more than 2,000 years." said Professor Wu Bingan of Liaoning University.



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Sunday, June 06, 2004

Muay Thai - The Ancient Thai Art of Boxing

 

Thailand: Images of Muay Thai

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore   weecheng.com

Images of the ancient Thai art of Boxing during a trip to Bangkok (Lumpini Stadium).  21 - 23 May 2004

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Kathakali - An Exotic Indian Dance Form / Lizards of Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve

I have just done a photo website on an amazing Kathakali performance in Singapore.  It can be found at http://weecheng.com/singapore/kathakali04/index.htm
 
In addition, I have also completed a few other webpages:
 
Tan Wee Cheng's Singapore: http://weecheng.com/singapore/index.htm
 
Lizards of Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, Singapore: http://weecheng.com/singapore/lizards/index.htm  
 
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======================= 
 Singapore: A Kathakali Performance
 
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The Kathakali is an ancient theatre art form of the State of Kerala in southern India.  The people of Kerala are known as the Malayalee.  There are 25,000 Malayalees in Singapore, forming one of the largest sub-groups of the Indian community in Singapore.

Traditional Kathakali performances tend to involve tales from the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.  Kathakali is most renowned for its elaborate make-up and flamboyant costumes.  In fact, the make-up process can often take hours.  The one I witnessed took four hours to complete.  According to this Kathakali website: "The faces of noble male characters, such as virtuous kings, the divine hero Rama, etc., are predominantly green. Characters of high birth who have an evil streak, such as the demon king Ravana, are allotted a similar green make-up, slashed with red marks on the cheeks. Extremely angry or excessively evil characters wear predominantly red make-up and a flowing red beard. Forest dwellers such as hunters are represented with a predominantly black make-up base. Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces."

The Kathakali performance itself is often very long and often takes place through the night, till an auspicious hour at dawn.  The one I attended last 7 hours, till 6am the next morning.  The Kathakali is also a highly ritualistic affair.  Every performance begins with rituals devoted to the gods, with the dancers dancing behind an embroidered curtain held by two assistants.  That is a private performance exclusive for the gods, to secure their blessings for the performers and the audience.  It is only after this ritual, which in my case lasted 50 minutes, that the actual performance began.  Also noted in any Kathakali performance are the enormous headdresses and amazing, highly developed use of facial expression and gesture to convey messages and meaning. 

I took these pictures during a Kathakali performance on 5 June 2004, which was an event of the 2004 Singapore Arts Festival.  They portray mainly the make-up process and the start of the Kathakali performance.

 
Copyright - Tan Wee Cheng, 2004


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Long Live the Great Leader

Cool isn't it?
 
 
  
 


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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Fwd: Rumsfeld Kung Fu!

This is hilarious!

From: "Sean R"
Subject: Rumsfeld Kung Fu!

http://www.poe-news.com/features.php?feat=31845



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Find what you are looking for with the Lycos Yellow Pages
http://r.lycos.com/r/yp_emailfooter/http://yellowpages.lycos.com/default.asp?SRC=lycos10


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Snacker's Paradise: Devouring Singapore's Endless Supper

http://travel2.nytimes.com/mem/travel/article-page.html?res=9C01E0DF153BF933A2575AC0A9659C8B63

September 10, 2003

ASIAN JOURNEY; Snacker's Paradise: Devouring Singapore's Endless Supper

By R. W. APPLE Jr.

''FOOD is the purest democracy we have,'' K. F. Seetoh said as we dug into breakfast bowls of bak kut teh, a peppery, restorative Teochew soup of pork ribs, mushrooms and kidneys. ''Singaporeans recognize no difference between bone china and melamine.''

Slurp, slurp. Yum, yum. The clear, aromatic broth, full of tender, close-grained pork, perked up by herbs and whole garlic cloves, was cooked in a hole in the wall next to a busy expressway and eaten at a sidewalk table. Cab drivers, teachers and a few junior executives slurped around us. Bak kut teh is the city's preferred hangover remedy, and Ng Ah Sio makes the best, which is why Mr. Seetoh took me there.

This was the start of 16 hours of almost continuous talking and eating, with the rollicking Mr. Seetoh -- ''K. F. stands for King of Food,'' he joked -- as my guide and noshing companion. Racing around this island city-state in his Mitsubishi van, with two brief pauses to shower and change clothes (eating in Singapore can be messy), we would make 18 stops before midnight.

''Don't eat, just taste,'' he kept saying. I tried, but I failed. More gourmand than gourmet, I finished much of what was put before me at a dizzying array of food stalls, storefronts and hawker centers, which are so called because they were built by the government of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to get open-air food-sellers, or hawkers, off the sidewalks and indoors.

Fish balls followed chwee kueh, soto ayam followed roti prata and rojak followed chicken rice, in a multicultural parade of gastronomic hits that issued, in most cases, from kitchens no longer than walk-in closets. With so little overhead to defray, gluttony was cheap: $2 a plate on average.

Singapore is one of the most food-mad cities in an ever more food-mad world, with more than 6,500 restaurants and 11,500 food stalls jammed into its 250 square miles. They offer Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka and Hainanese dishes -- all with roots in China -- plus curries from south India, tikkas from north India, Malay and Indonesian and Thai specialties, and adaptations and mixtures of all of them.

It adds up to a feast fit for the gods, but for the ordinary visitor, even one who has been here often, it can seem more like culinary chaos. Which is where Mr. Seetoh, 40, steps into the picture. Once by his own description ''a useless street kid,'' he skipped university, learned photography in the army.

But food was his passion, and in 1998, he and Lim Moh Cher, an equally enthusiastic eater, started a guide to street food.

They called it Makansutra, from the Malay word for eat and the Sanskrit word for a set of rules or maxims. It has grown into a small empire, including a Web site and television programs as well as an amazingly comprehensive guidebook, whose current, 456-page edition contains detailed information about thousands of eating places.

Now Singapore's unchallenged makan guru, instantly recognizable in his trademark sunglasses and his crumpled cap, Mr. Seetoh is greeted by one and all as he chugs by on the yellow Vespa or the Canondale mountain bike he uses -- when he isn't lugging an elderly visiting makan maven around town.

I THINK the knock on Singapore is way overdone. Sure, it's squeaky clean and modern, but come on: does anyone actually prefer the beggars, rubbish and shantytowns that deface many large Asian cities? Not the poor souls who live in them. It's plenty tough on miscreants, but hardly deserving of William Gibson's woundingly dismissive tag line, ''Disneyland With the Death Penalty.''

Under Goh Chok Tong, Lee Kwan Yew's successor, individualism has gained a little more breathing room. The longstanding and much-ridiculed ban on chewing gum has just been relaxed. Censorship guidelines are currently under high-level review. Nightclubs, once invisible, now throb into the wee hours. And the louchest of Maugham's or Conrad's characters would feel right at home in the seedy bars and brothels off Geylang Road, east of the city center.

Having spent many years bulldozing old buildings, Singapore is now busy saving others and putting them to new uses. One of these, a grandiose neo-Palladian pile close to the Padang, the city's central green, was once the General Post Office; now it is the Fullerton, a luxury hotel with one of the city's best upmarket dining rooms, Jade. Having spent years in headlong pursuit of Mammon, Singapore is now busy chasing culture, as exemplified by the new, $343-million Esplanade arts center, known colloquially as the Durian because its spiky profile resembles that of a local fruit.

''We are witnessing many changes,'' said Tommy Koh, the country's dynamic former ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, who helped to bring many of the new developments about.

One thing that hasn't changed is the Botanic Gardens, founded in 1859, which I would nominate as the island's top tourist attraction. Its brilliant orchid collection is the world's largest, with 700 species and 3,000 hybrids, many named after leaders like Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela.

My wife, Betsey, and I ate the best European meal of our recent stay in Singapore at Au Jardin Les Amis, a restaurant in the gardens created by one of the city's superstar chefs, Justin Quek. Small portions of worldly food with punchy flavors -- truffled sandre (pike-perch) with girolles, rabbit with mustard sauce -- were enhanced by artful presentation on glacier-white plates, fine French and Australian wines, lush flowers and silky service.

There were few Asian grace notes that evening, but for lunch in a private dining room at Jade a few days later, Sam Leong, another local culinary wunderkind, pulled together a stunning pan-Asian, European-influenced menu.

A classic Peking duck with skin as crisp as parchment was accompanied, for example, by five-spice duck foie gras. Crisp prawns were served with wasabi mayonnaise. Meltingly soft tofu, better than any I had ever tasted before, was house-made with puréed spinach, like tagliatelle verde. A jellied dessert was flavored with lemon grass. It was Singapore on a plate, or rather several plates, brought up to date: traditions blended without strain.

BUT back to Mr. Seetoh and the magical makan tour. From Ng Ah Sio we headed west to the Tiong Bahru Cooked Food Center, a low, shedlike structure adjacent to an apartment complex.

We picked up one dish from each of the stalls that he considered first-rate and carried them to the roofless central courtyard of the building, where several tables sat around an angsana tree.

''Always try the soup first,'' my food philosopher advised. If it really stinks, he added, ''call the police.''

It didn't, even though it was (gulp!) my second bowl of pig soup that morning -- a rich, porky brew, full of chunks of chitterlings, liver and spleen, made by Koh Brothers (no relation to Mr. Koh). Incredibly, given the ingredients, there was no acrid taste or aroma. I was reminded of the ways the French transform tripe.

Next, fish balls, made of flaked fish and flour and fried on the spot. ''Too springy,'' Mr. Seetoh said. ''Inconsequential taste,'' I told myself, ''and unappealing texture.''

Then onward to the cake stalls.

I had no complaints about humdrum flavor when I bit into Jian Bo's famous chwee kueh, which are steamed rice cakes topped with fried preserved radishes, called chai poh, and chili. The radishes taste slightly of bitter chocolate, and the chili provides a welcome bit of bite. People drive from all over town to taste this dish.

Chai tau kueh was another winner -- omelettelike savory fried rice cakes with shredded radishes and carrots, topped with sweetened soy sauce that resembles the Indonesian kecap manis.

If my soy-stained notes are right, this tidbit is Hokkien, cooked by people who trace their origins to Fujian province, between Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Before we left Tiong Bahru, whose stall holders are all ethnic Chinese, we tasted further evidence of the Asian genius for making a lot from a little, in the form of mee chiang kueh, a thick pancake filled with coconut and peanuts crushed before our eyes in an ancient heroically clanking and banging contraption.

But my favorite Tiong Bahru specialty was suckling pig spit-roasted in the Cantonese style, right there in a 6-by-8-foot kitchen.

Remember the crackling on your mom's roast pork? Here they never got rid of it. Thin layers of fat tucked between layers of lean melted in my greedy mouth.

''That's char siew, my friend,'' Mr. Seetoh said. ''These people have been making this for 30, 40 years. Cooking is not about creating and evolving for them. It's all tradition.''

LUNCHTIME (I kid you not). We stopped at the hotel to pick up Betsey, who had spent the morning on more pressing business, then swung by Nasi Padang River Valley for some beef. Our porkfest was over. Nasi padang, named for a city on the Sumatran coast, is a dish of rice (nasi) surrounded by a variety of spicy side dishes -- proto-rijstafel. The star of River Valley's spread, which is laid out on utilitarian metal tables, is beef rendang, a grainy, coconut-based curry, made not with the usual off-cuts but with juicy rib eye. No doubt that's why Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, stops there often.

Mr. Seetoh traded jibes with Zulfa Hamid, the chef, and told me, much more soberly, that nasi padang had begun as ''desperation food,'' developed by the poor to make cheap meat and fish more palatable.

From Indonesia, we traveled to Malaysia, gastronomically speaking -- to Janatul Jalan Kayu, a roti prata stand halfway across town, tucked beneath a modern low-rise building. There Anwar the roti master, decked out in yellow sneakers and a kangaroo T-shirt, pounded and stretched a large pancake, flipped it into the air like a practiced Neapolitan pizzaiolo, slapped it onto a hot grill greased with ghee, trapping air inside, and folded it like a napkin.

The result was crisp and fluffy, absolutely perfect for dipping into a rich, thick curry sauce and stuffing into waiting mouths.

Almost next door, at a little stand called Inspirasi, we tucked into bowls of soto ayam, which was the first Singapore street food I ever ate, back in the late 1960's. A gloriously full-bodied Javanese chicken soup, flavored with galangal and star anise, it is garnished with parsley, fried shallots and bean sprouts. Every day, hungry customers line up 40 minutes before noon, when Inspirasi's doors open. That's how Singaporeans feel about food, and that's the reputation of this place.

''Food writing is a godly calling,'' Mr. Seetoh said, smacking his lips. ''Chefs are the soldiers who defend Singapore's culinary heritage. They are my heroes. Without them, it would all disappear in a few years.''

A brisk crosstown dash ensued, to visit Karu's, a new Seetoh discovery near the Bukit Gombak military base. All but hidden by hardware stores and hubcap dealers, it serves a breathtaking fish-head curry, laced with tamarind and turmeric -- another example of desperation food, created by Indian cooks here from fish heads their British colonial masters threw away.

Served on a banana leaf with tomatoes, okra and a superb pilau of long-grain rice, the curry is eaten with the right hand. No cheating with the left, and no fork.

Fish heads contain some of the most succulent flesh on the animal, of course; cod cheeks are a delicacy much appreciated in Spain (and increasingly in New York). But if the whole idea seems too anatomical, don't despair. Chicken rice, Singapore's all-time favorite dish, is made just for you.

Chicken rice originated among the descendants of immigrants from Hainan Island, in the South China Sea. It consists of a whole bird poached in stock and cut into easily managed, skin-on pieces, with aromatic rice sautéed in chicken fat or oil, then boiled in stock with garlic and ginger. It may sound unexciting, banal, white-on-white. But if the rice is right, the dish has the allure of a fine risotto.

Everyone who serves it offers sliced cucumbers on the side and a special condiment to flavor the chicken. At the chicken-rice shrine where we ate, a modest stall beneath the corrugated roof at the Maxwell Road Food Center, the dipping sauce (lime peel, chili and garlic) packed a punch.

THAT evening, we stopped at the grandly named but mundane-looking Old Airport Road Emporium and Cooked Food Center for a few light hors d'oeuvres.

Of course we didn't need them, but moderation in the pursuit of flavor is no virtue. So we sampled rojak, a remarkably complex salad freshly assembled by an elderly couple from turnips, pineapple, green mango, dried tofu, peanuts, shrimp paste, tamarind paste, charcoal-grilled crullers and many, many other ingredients; fried Hokkien mee, an utterly addictive dish of egg noodles cooked with cuttlefish, shrimp and pieces of belly pork, enlivened with squirts of juice from a fresh lime; and that old skewered standby, satay, made of chicken.

More morsels awaited at the Zion Road Food Center, but time was fast running out. So it will have to wait until next time.

We ended our peregrinations, for that day at least, at a rickety table on the sidewalk at Sin Huat, a garishly lighted seafood joint in Geylang, the red-light district. Dishes arrived and vanished, arrived and vanished, amid excited chatter from Mr. Seetoh and our first wine of the day, brought by one of his buddies: sweet little bay scallops in their shells, with black bean sauce; baby bok choy with oyster sauce, not quite raw, not quite cooked, and delicious; prawns steamed, tossed in a wok and showered with blanched garlic.

But what we had come for, what has made the name of Danny Lee, the chef, and what has earned Makansutra's ultimate accolade, ''Die, die, must try,'' was the crab bee hoon. After a considerable wait (everybody waits at Sin Huat, even the makan guru) a platter of huge, bright orange-red crustaceans appeared. They were piled atop a tangle of rice vermicelli, in a sticky sauce made from spring onions, ginger, red chili and Mr. Lee's ''secret stock.'' The sweetness of the crabs and the tang of the spices had been fried right into the noodles.

''Do you smell it?'' Mr. Seetoh exclaimed, fanning the aroma toward us with his hand. ''Mama! Mama!''

It was the best crab dish we tasted in a city famous for crabs. (All the top chefs, intriguingly enough, use the meat-packed jumbos from Sri Lanka.) It was better than the excellent, magnificently messy chili crabs at Roland's, whose owner's parents invented the dish, and better than pepper crabs laden with pungent, lip-searing, freshly ground black Tellicherry pepper.

But more work lay ahead. The next morning, Tommy Koh's son, Aun, a photographer, and Aun's slim, glamorous wife, Tan Su-Lyn, an editor, took me to a traditional kopi tiam, or coffee shop, where we ate another of Singapore's national dishes, char kwey teow -- broad, stir-fried rice noodles with sausage and cockles, dressed with soy sauce as thick as molasses -- and then to Ya Kun, a 50-year-old cafe now installed in a rehabbed Chinatown building.

Ya Kun's specialty is kaya roti, a dish created by Nonyas, the female descendants of intermarriage between Chinese and Malays. It consists of thin brown bread grilled over charcoal, rather like melba toast but less dry, spread with a rich egg custard and coconut jam. Starbucks, please copy!

Realizing that he had not yet exposed us to laksa, Mr. Seetoh asked us to join him for lunch that day at a favorite spot, Marine Parade Laksa, which has such a following that imitators surround it. Often it sells 600 bowls of noodles a day, drenched in coconut chili curry and flavored with daun kesom, also known as Vietnamese coriander.

Peranakan cooking, the cooking of the Nonyas and (occasionally) their male counterparts, the Babas, is unique to Singapore, Malacca and Penang -- the old Straits Settlements. We saved it for last, as a summing-up of the city's food culture. Saucers of tiny, bright-flavored local limes and fiery sambal waited on every table at the House of Peranakan Cuisine, and the menu was dotted with unusual, complicated and, as it turned out, captivating dishes.

Three of them shot our lights out: otah-otah, spicy sticks of mackerel paste wrapped in fresh banana leaves and grilled over a smoky fire; chap chye, a mixture of lily flower buds, cabbage, bok nee tree fungus and bean curd, cooked in a clay pot; and ayam buah keluak, chicken cooked with the black, nutlike fruit of the kepayang tree, sometimes called the Asian truffle.

It is exacting and exhausting food to prepare, Bob Seah, the restaurant's owner, told us, but ''full of rare flavors worth preserving for posterity.'' Like so many flavors and aromas here in Singapore.


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My entry on Vesak Day 2003 (15 May last year)

My entry on Vesak Day 2003 (15 May last year):
 

Vesak Day.  For the first time, I got the Mum and Dad to go to Bright Hill Temple with me, at 7am.  Like pilgrims of sort, we walked 2km journey from our place to BHT.  Many worshippers were already there. Good to start early before the sun is up.  All of us have to go through the SARS scanning line first.  We had to fill up a declaration form to say we do not have any of the SARS symptons, hadn't been near any SARS patient, or gone to a hospital or SARS infected region recently.  And then pass through a SARS scanner which looks like a flat panel showing passing images in shades of red, orange or yellow, to display differing temperature. 

We also got our palms printed onto a large greeting wallpiece which was supposed to be presented to the brave medical warriors combating SARS.  Well done, just our expression of gratitude towards these heroes of the Republic. 

It was a hot day and we were soon soaked in perspire.  But it felt good coming here to affirm our faith in the teachings of Buddha. 

----

In the afternoon, I went to the Guan Yin Temple at Waterloo Street.  I 'qiu qian' for an advice on career.  Times are tough.  For the 2nd time in my life (- last was more than 10 years ago), I actually seek such 'assistance'.  I guess I got a 'shang shang qian'.  I felt a lot more assured.

Then another visit to a temple at CCK where there was a visiting exhibition of Buddha's relics and that of many Buddhist masters.  I think these are owned by the Tibetan Buddhists and they are trying to raise funds for the Maitreya Project which intended to build a gigantic statue of Maitreya in north India.  The statue is supposed to be several times taller than Taj Mahal or Statue of Liberty.

I wonder how many schools and orphanages one can build with such funds.  I did not buy any of the merchandise at that exhibition.

 


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Another entry on last year's Vesak Day

I met someone some time ago for professional reasons. Since then, she has been sending me at least one (usually two) Christian message or article on a daily basis, even though she knew I am Buddhist. I call this unprofessional.

One fine day, she sent me a large powerpoint file which took so long to download. I wrote an email to remind her I don't need Christian emails, especially large ones. I continued to receive her daily messages of the gospels, though no more large bandwidth killing files. Of course, these sharpened my skills in hitting the delete button.

Last Friday, I finally had enough of such nonsense. I copied and pasted 10 Buddhist prayers onto a single email and sent it to her with the header "Vesak Day Buddhist Prayer Number 1 of 50". Half a day later, I copied another set of prayers and emailed to her with the header "Vesak Day Buddhist Prayer Number 2 of 50".

I no longer received her daily nonsense.

----

I received an invitation to a birthday party which asks all guests not to bring presents for the birthday girl but give cash instead, with all proceeds going to Christian missionary activities.

I wonder if these people would come if I hold a birthday party and asks all guests to bring cash for Buddhist missionary activities.


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A Posting Abt Religious Fundamentalism in Aug 2003

I have mentioned before that a headhunter I knew through professional channels began the very unprofessional habit of emailing me several Christian messages a day, even though she knew I am Buddhist.  I wrote to ask her to stop.  She did, only for a few days and then continued as before.  Then I sent her a number of Buddhist chants and that stopped her activity for a week.  And she continued those irritating messages again.  I sort of gave up after a while.  I simply regarded her messages like the 50 - 70 other junks mails I receive daily.  Hit the delete button.

That was, until a week ago.  I received this ridiculous message from her, calling Singaporeans to pray against the so-called "Plague of Gays".  It was a most vicious message been circulated around by some crazy reverand calling Singaporeans to resist the "immoral, sinful gay lobby" who are allegedly out to destroy Singapore.  This got on my nerves. 

I have been reading about PM Goh's comments on a more open Singapore that should stop discriminate against the gay population, which according to numerous scientific studies, account for at least 10% of any population.  Few countries in the world open criminalises its own population.  Outdated anti-gay Victorian laws here - ironically the real "Western moral influence on our Asian society - place Singapore among the ranks of ultra-conservative and backward countries like Saudi Arabia and Taleban's Afghanistan.  Even truely Confucianist Asian societies like China, Taiwan and Korea have gay rights protected and upheld, and approved gay organizations.  It's time to rid ourselves of outdated views and misconception about gay people and give them equal rights that are enshrined in our Constitution.

I have to condemn those out to derail the gay people's struggle for their rights.  Those are religious fundamentalists out to impose their extremist views on the rest of the country.  The Bible is a holy book for only 15% of the population and it should not the basis of running a modern nation.

I wrote a rebuttal to this lady, reprimanding her for her fascist views, and warned her not to send me such messages any more.  I told her that her messages are ridiculous, fascist, outdated and totally offensive to me as a Buddhist, and that I have no interest in subscribing to a religion that have a hand in most wars and forced conversions worldwide in the last 2000 years.

I have not received any of those propaganda since.

 


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Quotation

"the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do."


Samuel P. Huntington


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Quotations

Franklin D. Roosevelt: In our seeking for economic and political progress, we all go up - or else we all go down.
 
Henry Ford: It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.
 
Carpe Diem - Seize the Day!
 
John Lehman: Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat.
 
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778): Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains.
 
George Soros: The untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life, is endangering our open and democratic society.
 
Sir Winston Churchill: The inherent vice of capitalism is the uneven division of blessings, while the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal division of misery.


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URGENT ASSISTANCE - FROM GEORGE WALKER BUSH

URGENT ASSISTANCE - FROM USA

IMMEDIATE ATTENTION NEEDED :

HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL

FROM: GEORGE WALKER BUSH

202.456.1414 / 202.456.1111

FAX: 202.456.2461

DEAR SIR / MADAM,

I AM GEORGE WALKER BUSH, SON OF THE FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF

AMERICA GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH, AND CURRENTLY SERVING AS PRESIDENT OF

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

THIS LETTER MIGHT SURPRISE YOU BECAUSE WE HAVE NOT MET NEITHER IN PERSON NOR

BY CORRESPONDENCE. I CAME TO KNOW OF YOU IN MY SEARCH FOR A RELIABLE AND

REPUTABLE PERSON TO HANDLE A VERY CONFIDENTIAL BUSINESS TRANSACTION, WHICH

INVOLVES THE TRANSFER OF A HUGE SUM OF MONEY TO AN ACCOUNT REQUIRING MAXIMUM

CONFIDENCE.

I AM WRITING YOU IN ABSOLUTE CONFIDENCE PRIMARILY TO SEEK YOUR ASSISTANCE IN

ACQUIRING OIL FUNDS THAT ARE PRESENTLY TRAPPED IN THE REPUBLIC OF IRAQ. MY

PARTNERS AND I SOLICIT YOUR ASSISTANCE IN COMPLETING A TRANSACTION BEGUN BY

MY FATHER, WHO HAS LONG BEEN ACTIVELY ENGAGED IN THE EXTRACTION OF PETROLEUM

IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,AND BRAVELY SERVED HIS COUNTRY AS DIRECTOR

OF THE UNITED STATES CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY.

IN THE DECADE OF THE NINETEEN-EIGHTIES, MY FATHER, THEN VICE-PRESIDENT OF

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, SOUGHT TO WORK WITH THE GOOD OFFICES OF THE

PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF IRAQ TO REGAIN LOST OIL REVENUE SOURCES IN THE

NEIGHBORING ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN. THIS UNSUCCESSFUL VENTURE WAS SOON

FOLLOWED BY A FALLING-OUT WITH HIS IRAQI PARTNER, WHO SOUGHT TO ACQUIRE

ADDITIONAL OIL REVENUE SOURCES IN THE NEIGHBORING EMIRATE OF KUWAIT, A

WHOLLY-OWNED U.S.-BRITISH SUBSIDIARY.

MY FATHER RE-SECURED THE PETROLEUM ASSETS OF KUWAIT IN 1991 AT A COST OF

SIXTY-ONE BILLION U.S. DOLLARS ($61,000,000,000). OUT OF THAT COST,

THIRTY-SIX BILLION DOLLARS ($36,000,000,000) WERE SUPPLIED BY HIS PARTNERS

IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA AND OTHER PERSIAN GULF MONARCHIES, AND

SIXTEEN BILLION DOLLARS ($16,000,000,000) BY GERMAN AND JAPANESE PARTNERS.

BUT MY FATHER'S FORMER IRAQI BUSINESS PARTNER REMAINED IN CONTROL OF THE

REPUBLIC OF IRAQ AND ITS PETROLEUM RESERVES.

MY FAMILY IS CALLING FOR YOUR URGENT ASSISTANCE IN FUNDING THE REMOVAL OF

THE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF IRAQ AND ACQUIRING THE PETROLEUM ASSETS OF

HIS COUNTRY, AS COMPENSATION FOR THE COSTS OF REMOVING HIM FROM POWER.

UNFORTUNATELY, OUR PARTNERS FROM 1991 ARE NOT WILLING TO SHOULDER THE BURDEN

OF THIS NEW VENTURE, WHICH IN ITS UPCOMING PHASE MAY COST THE SUM OF 100

BILLION TO 200 BILLION DOLLARS ($100,000,000,000 - $200,000,000,000), BOTH

IN THE INITIAL ACQUISITION AND IN LONG-TERM MANAGEMENT.

WITHOUT THE FUNDS FROM OUR 1991 PARTNERS, WE WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO ACQUIRE

THE OIL REVENUE TRAPPED WITHIN IRAQ. THAT IS WHY MY FAMILY AND OUR

COLLEAGUES ARE URGENTLY SEEKING YOUR GRACIOUS ASSISTANCE.

OUR DISTINGUISHED COLLEAGUES IN THIS BUSINESS TRANSACTION INCLUDE THE

SITTING VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, RICHARD CHENEY, WHO

IS AN ORIGINAL PARTNER IN THE IRAQ VENTURE AND FORMER HEAD OF THE

HALLIBURTON OIL COMPANY, AND CONDOLEEZA RICE, WHOSE PROFESSIONAL DEDICATION

TO THE VENTURE WAS DEMONSTRATED IN THE NAMING OF A CHEVRON OIL TANKER AFTER

HER.

I WOULD BESEECH YOU TO TRANSFER A SUM EQUALING TEN TO TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT

(10-25 %) OF YOUR YEARLY INCOME TO OUR ACCOUNT TO AID IN THIS IMPORTANT

VENTURE. THE INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA WILL

FUNCTION AS OUR TRUSTED INTERMEDIARY. I PROPOSE THAT YOU MAKE THIS TRANSFER

BEFORE THE FIFTEENTH (15TH) OF THE MONTH OF APRIL.

I KNOW THAT A TRANSACTION OF THIS MAGNITUDE WOULD MAKE ANYONE APPREHENSIVE

AND WORRIED. BUT I AM ASSURING YOU THAT ALL WILL BE WELL AT THE END OF THE

DAY. A BOLD STEP TAKEN SHALL NOT BE REGRETTED, I ASSURE YOU. PLEASE DO BE

INFORMED THAT THIS BUSINESS TRANSACTION IS 100% LEGAL. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO

CO-OPERATE IN THIS TRANSACTION, PLEASE CONTACT OUR INTERMEDIARY

REPRESENTATIVES TO FURTHER DISCUSS THE MATTER.

I PRAY THAT YOU UNDERSTAND OUR PLIGHT. MY FAMILY AND OUR COLLEAGUES WILL BE

FOREVER GRATEFUL. PLEASE REPLY IN STRICT CONFIDENCE TO THE CONTACT NUMBERS

BELOW.

SINCERELY WITH WARM REGARDS,

GEORGE WALKER BUSH

Switchboard: 202.456.1414

Comments: 202.456.1111

Fax: 202.456.2461

Email: president@whitehouse.gov


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South Korea 2003 Part II: To The Ancient Heartland Of Korea

South Korea: Looking For Calmness In Land Of The Morning Calm

Part II: To The Ancient Heartland Of Korea

 

 

We drove southwards on the country’s wonderful motorways, across the rolling hills and valleys of this mountainous country.  We drove past the industrial metropolis of Daejeon and Daegu, each with more than a million inhabitants.  South Korea is about the size of Portugal but has almost five times the population.  70% of the population live in cities and about half that number in Seoul and its surrounding region.  South Korea is an incredible industrial machine.  It is one of the world’s greatest manufacturing and trading nations.  Brands like LG, Samsung and Hyundai have become household brand names worldwide. 

 

Yet, 10% of the South Korean population remain farmers who account for 4% of the GDP (in contrast to 3% in terms of population and GDP for France), a relatively high number for a high income and high cost country.  The high degree of protection against imports prevents this percentage from dropping further. South Korean farmers are a militant lot and they agitate actively against any moves to liberalise trade.  A few months ago, during the WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico, a Korean farmer stabbed himself to death in protest of agricultural liberalisation and free trade. 

 

This week, thousands of farmers marched to Seoul’s Yeouido area where the National Assembly government buildings, bank headquarters as well as broadcasting networks are located.  In this area where politicians rubbed shoulders with bankers and movie stars, the farmers demonstrated and rioted against change.  History has a way of dealing with people who cannot accept technological change.  Unless Korean farmers adapt to change, they would suffer the same fate as the radical textile workers of Lancashire, who protested against the advent of textile looms pretty much the same way two hundred years ago.

 

----

 

It is often said that Korea is a conservative country where Confucian values are paramount, even to an extent greater than the original Chinese societies such as China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  I was told that the latest action block blaster “Kill Bill” had to be shown in black and white because that would dilute elements of violence.   Sounds like an over-do, but at least, I think that makes a lot more sense than Singapore, which has silly and outdated Victorian laws that make oral sex and homosexuality criminal offences.  Korea is a lot more progressive than that.

 

----

 

Getting a soup wrong can provoke serious responses in Korea.  A friend was once reprimanded in a Korean restaurant for mistaking a Korean soup for the Japanese Miso soup.  He was given a stern lecture on how this soup was made, the high quality materials used, and how lousy Japanese Miso soup was. 

 

In Korea, one often come across comments on how scientific the Korean language is, how wonderful the cuisine is, how ethnically homogenous it is, how hardworking the people are, and in short, why this is one of the best countries to be in.  Not that these are necessarily wrong statements, but just that they are an indication of how nationalistic the Koreans are, wonderful and friendly people they certainly are. 

 

And of course there are other nationalities that are fond of making chauvinistic proclamations like that, such as Singaporeans, Chinese, Americans and the Japanese, but quite often in Korea such sentiments do impact on the way business and everyday life is conducted. While I was in Korea, the Joong Ang Daily reported on its headlines that U.S. Olympic skater Ohno won’t race in Korea because he had received death threats.  Foreign investors also often complain about how bona fide business decisions and investment plans get bogged down when the other parties start playing the Korean nationalist card. 

 

For Korean manufacturers, the Korean people’s affinity to anything Korean is a great asset, for it insulates the country against foreign competitors.  Foreign marketers have as a result found the Korean market very difficult to penetrate.  Korean manufacturers therefore can delay the almost inevitable process of relocating less efficient plants abroad despite the high cost of operating in Korea.  It’s debatable how long this process can be, considering the enormous cost advantage China has.

 

----

 

Between the 1st and the 3rd centuries A.D., three rival kingdoms arose on the Korean Peninsula.  Silla based around Gyeongju in southwestern Korea was once of the three kingdoms that arose during those early years of Korean nationhood.  In 668 A.D., it united all Korea after defeating not only the rival kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo, but also the Chinese imperial armies under the Sui and Tang Dynasties. 

 

It was said that the Korean wars were so disastrous for Sui Dynasty that tax burden and loss of military and political prestige that it was overthrown by Tang Dynasty, which subsequently became known as the Golden Age of the Chinese civilization.  The United Silla Dynasty was the Golden Age of Korea.  Arts, architecture and religion flourished in the capital Gyeongju. Numerous palaces, temples and monasteries were built, the remnants of which are still being seen in the city and its surroundings today.

 

We drove to Bulguksa Temple, one of Gyeongju’s architectural gems where we wondered in the thousand years-old World Heritage Site in the last days of the magnificent autumn foliage.  The chants of monks resonate around the ancient multi-tiered stone pagodas of the Silla period.  This was once an important monastery but was largely destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1593, and only rebuilt in the 1970s.  The Koreans have an antagonistic relationship with Japan.  The Japanese have invaded Korea several times over the past 1000 years, and it does not take long for any tourist to Korea to notice references to destruction caused by Japanese invasions at temples, palaces and historical monuments of all sorts.

 

In the mountains behind the temple is the Seokguram Grotto, a cave where a huge Silla-era Buddha statue was rediscovered in 1909.  Dedicated by a Silla Prime Minister in 742 A.D. to his late parents, this Buddha is the symbol of Korean Buddhist art and culture in the Mediaeval times.  Long lost in the deep mountains, the statue was rediscovered by local farmers and it was a miracle the Japanese who at that time had just occupied Korea, did not succeed in their initial plan to move the statue to Japan, as they did to many of Korea’s artistic treasures.

 

From the Buddha of Seokguram Grotto, one looks out to the wide open seas to the east,  the body of which the Japanese (and many contemporary maps) call the Sea of Japan, and the Koreans call East Sea (as the Chinese do).  Once again, this is the subject of a bitter dispute between the two nations.  The Koreans say the body of water used to be known as either the Sea of Korea or East Sea, and the Japanese forced a name change when they illegally occupied Korea in the closing years of the 19th century.  This issue, such as that of the Comfort Women (Korean women who were forced to become prostitutes by Japanese troops during WWII), continue to poison the relations of the two neighbours. 

 

The sensitivity of Korean-Japanese relations entered world headlines when the two countries competed bitterly to host the World Cup in 2002.  As a compromise solution, FIFA awarded the privilege to both countries, and hence the games were jointly hosted by two countries for the first time in history. 

 

Not far from the coast is a rocky islet where the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu was discovered in 1967.  King Munmu (661 – 681 A.D.), who united all Korea under the banner of the Silla Dynasty, had, according to legends, asked to be cremated and buried at sea so that he could become a dragon to protect Korea from the Japanese who were likely to invade by sea.  It is said that his ashes were kept in a stone coffin which lies in a pool in the middle of the isle.  No one has examined the unusual stone object in the pool to verify this claim.  Legends are usually more useful kept that way, so that dead heroes continue to rally the nation.

 

----

 

Kimchi (or Gimchi in the new translation method), one of the “five treasures of the Korean people”, is the symbol of Korean cuisine and culture.  Love it or hate it, but you certainly can’t miss it.  It’s essentially chopped up vegetables seasoned with generous dose of chilli and garlic and ginger, and then left to ferment in earthen pots, sometimes for as long as six months.  It is often served cold (though not all the time), and can be served either as a main dish, or a side-dish to any Korean meal, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner.  You see it all the time, and everywhere.  In fact, the Koreans have a saying: “the taste of your kimchi is the taste of your mother’s finger tips.”

 

The kimchi has a pungent, tangy cold flavour, albeit with an electrifying fiery, spicy bite.  However, if you leave it in the fridge, your whole fridge smells as though you just had a kimchi party.  So, Korean manufacturers have invented the kimchi fridge which not only allows you to store kimchi properly but also allows kimchi to ferment at the right temperature. 

 

Kimchi is most commonly made from cabbage, but they can also be made from virtually all types of vegetables, and mixed with fish, squid, beef, pork – you name it, they have it.  There are 160 varieties of kimchi and most of them quite spicy.  What is amazing is that kimchi didn’t used to be spicy.  Red pepper, which is used for many Korean kimchi today, was only introduced by the Portuguese into Korea in the 17th century. 

 

2003’s SARS epidemic in China has furthered the popular mythology of kimchi.  Despite the close personal and business contact with China, very few Koreans are diagnosed with SARS.  This sparked off all sorts of theories that kimchi has counter-SARS capabilities.  There appears to be little scientific evidence of this, but it has sparked off kimchi fever in Japan and China, where people are discovering the delights of kimchi.  Most ironically, however, the growing popularity of kimchi outside Korea may just destroy the Korean kimchi export industry.  Food manufacturers in China have now entered the kimchi business and now exporting even to Korea itself – and Korean supermarkets are happily embracing them due to their lower cost and seemingly similar standards. 

 

This threat further aggravates the kimchi dispute Korea has with Japan, which exports worldwide Japanese style kimchi known as “kimuchi”, i.e., kimchi adapted to Japanese taste, with artificial flavours, minus the fermentation process which takes longer.  In fact, Japanese kimuchi exports have exceeded Korean kimchi exports.  Attempts in 1996 to label Japanese kimuchi as an official Japanese “Olympic food” prompted Korean protests and Korea had requested that the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization that an international kimchi standard be adopted based on the Korean recipe.  Whatever it is, in the longer term, it is not unlikely that it would be Chinese kimchi which would have a say in the global kimchi market.

 

----

 

Back to Gyeongju City, we explored ancient tombs, and ruins of palaces, city walls and an observatory.  The Tumuli Park is an open-air museum of 23 huge Silla royal burial mounds right at the heart of the city.  Covered with fresh green carpet grass, these perfect conical shaped mounds looked like well-proportioned breasts of beautiful young women.  Many treasures were found on the site, including golden crown, jewellery and weapons, all testimony of the level of Korea art and civilisation during the Mediaeval times, when most of Europe was inhabited by unruly tribes.  One of the most important tombs here is the Cheonmachong, or Tomb of the Heavenly Horse, so named due to the discovery here of a painting of a spectacular leaping horse.  

 

We also went to the National Museum of Gyeongju, where the Sacred Bell of King Songdok was exhibited.  Carved in 771 A.D., it is one of the largest of its kind in Asia.  The bell is also known as the Emile Bell, so-called because of the old Silla word pronounced as “em-ee-leh”, which means mommy.  Popular mythology says that when the bell was first made, it did not ring and had to be melted to be recast.  A vision told the head monk in charge of the temple that a child had to be sacrificed for the bell to work.  And so he threw a little child into the molten metal.  After the bell was recast, it rang when struck and it sounded like a baby crying “Mommy!  Mommy!” when he was sacrificed.

 

Korea is a strange country in some ways.  Like its two powerful neighbours, China and Japan, its history and culture are full of ironical examples of sophisticated and exquisite taste of art, which often co-existed with instances of brutality and bloodthirstiness.

 

----

 

Five days of rushing around Korea and we returned to Singapore with wonderful memories of a modern nation at the crossroads.  Thanks to the many friends who have entertained us with great hospitality, we had a great time and certainly would like to return again, perhaps to visit the city of Busan and other historical sites in the south.  Of course, to Wee Cheng the traveller to controversial regimes and other supposed Utopias, North Korea and its bizarre regime is a prime destination to the New Year. 

 

 


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