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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Impressions of Home: London, Tokyo and Amman

In my travels, what always fascinated me the most was where and how people lived. Yes, visiting national monuments, heritage sites, ancient ruins, beautiful cathedrals, weekend markets, pulsating arts districts, and Grimm fairy tales villages are de riguer for when I'm visitng a new destination, but I'm also that type of tourist who like shlepping through residential neighbourhoods, checking out the architecture details (more of than not, they don't have the expensive, high-profile stamp of rah-rah celebrity architects on them,) getting glimpses of regular, day-to-day life (generally by eye-balling people's homes from the street, car, train or bus,) pondering real estate ads in storefront windows and trying to visualize the living spaces, and play-pretend that I'm a local, even for a few minutes or hours.

To that end, I suppose it's inevitable I've put together a series of images comprising of my own personal, extremely subjective, impressions of "home" in some of the cities I've visited (and those that I've actually lived in) from the past.

Here are London, Tokyo, and Amman.
Because I'd stayed for prolonged periods of time, in two back-to-back trips to London, first at Grosvenor House, a JW Marriott Hotel and later at the neighbouring 47 Park Street (Grand Residences by Marriott), I became somewhat familiar with this totally swish neighbourhood. 
It's an eclectic mix of embassies, high-end fashion houses, townhomes, and low-rise apartment blocks - flanked by the retail chaos that is Oxford Street on the north, Hyde Park to the west and the genteel Dorchester in the south.  Couldn't quite say how many times in the evenings I've walked up and down these streets (where one wrong turn will get you steely stares from the Marines standing on post at the U.S. embassy on Upper Grosvenor Street) but I remembered it was a lot
Enough to make it my lasting memory where some lucky residents call home in this city. 

This was the view from my friend's living room / guest bedroom / dining room in Tokyo.  Her apartment was teeny (about 400 square feet if we're feeling optimistic) but then again so's she, so it all worked out well.  Best parts about staying there were the fact that it's in the very-happening district of Roppongi (where residents and tourists are still in heated debates as to whether it's a seedy enclave or a vibrant up-and-comer,) there's a lovely wee park just across the street, and her workplace, the stunning Ritz-Carlton within that Midtown Tower - the second tallest in Tokyo -
is just beyond the greenery.

I'd already chronicled my crazy, hunger-fueled, panic-tinged drive through (and beyond) Amman here, but all that drama doesn't detract one iota from the seemingly endless and amazing sights of the densely populated series of hills surrounding this remarkable and historic city that I hope one day to return.
    (All photographs by Weng Ho.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Impressions of Home: Toronto, Positano, Singapore

In my travels, what always fascinated me the most was where and how people lived. Yes, visiting national monuments, heritage sites, ancient ruins, beautiful cathedrals, weekend markets, pulsating arts districts, and Grimm fairy tales villages are de riguer for when I'm visitng a new destination, but I'm also that type of tourist who like shlepping through residential neighbourhoods, checking out the architecture details (more of than not, they don't have the expensive, high-profile stamp of rah-rah celebrity architects on them,) getting glimpses of regular, day-to-day life (generally by eye-balling people's homes from the street, car, train or bus,) pondering real estate ads in storefront windows and trying to visualize the living spaces, and play-pretend that I'm a local, even for a few minutes or hours.

To that end, I suppose it's inevitable I've put together a series of images comprising of my own personal, extremely subjective, impressions of "home" in some of the cities I've visited (and those that I've actually lived in) from the past.

Here are Toronto, Positano, and Singapore.
For about four years, I looked out at this predominantly Jewish surburban neighbourhood
pretty much day in and day out, from my bedroom window in my parents' condo
on Bathurst and Clark in Thornhill.  This view is pretty much what people would think
about living in Toronto is like - heck, it's what I still think today: cold, long winters, frigid temps,
exposed brick homes, suburbia, middle class, central heating, icy driveways, and
lots and lots of puffy insulation to keep out the, yeah, here it is again, cold.

Everytime I see photos of Positano, I'm dumbfounded by the homes, restaurants, shops and farms that are all precariously perched cliff-side, layered on top of each other, miles on end, with all those narrow winding roads linking them and fully utlized by the non-stop stream of pedestrians, cars, scooters, trucks, and those mega tour buses.  How is all that even possible?
Ahhh...Singapore....what's that wonderful stat again?  That more than 80 percent of its residents live in public housing (Housing Development Board) flats that are on average worth more than private homes in other major cosmopolitan cities around the world?  I totally believe that little OMG nugget.  I don't understand it, but I believe it.  Especially when you see multiplied everywhere variations of the pristine, utilitarian, cookie-cutter, mega multi blocks like this set in
Chua Chu Kang on the upper west side of the island.
(All photographs by Weng Ho.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Impressions of Home: Istanbul, Honolulu, Dubai

In my travels, what always fascinated me the most was where and how people lived.  Yes, visiting national monuments, heritage sites, ancient ruins, beautiful cathedrals, weekend markets, pulsating arts districts, and Grimm fairy tales villages are de riguer for when I'm visitng a new destination, but I'm also that type of tourist who like shlepping through residential neighbourhoods, checking out the architecture details (more of than not, they don't have the expensive, high-profile stamp of rah-rah celebrity architects on them,) getting glimpses of regular, day-to-day life (generally by eye-balling people's homes from the street, car, train or bus,) pondering real estate ads in storefront windows and trying to visualize the living spaces, and play-pretend that I'm a local, even for a few minutes or hours.

To that end, I suppose it's inevitable I've put together a series of images comprising of my own personal, extremely subjective, impressions of "home" in some of the cities I've visited (and those that I've actually lived in) from the past. 
Here are Istanbul, Honolulu and Dubai.

Where a tiny portion of the 13 million Istanbul residents live, on undulating hilly terrain and
overlooking the Golden Horn (the inlet of the Bosphorus that divides the capital.) 
Photo taken from the north-eastern part of the city.

I must admit, I'd totally fallen for that romantic and very wrong notion that everyone lived beachfront in
Aman-like villas in Hawaii, with bougainvilleas and coconut trees in every garden. 
The reality is way more shabby, weather-beaten and, well, industrial, than the fancy imaginings I had.
Oh, and expensive too.

Dubai Marina - the largest in the world (of course it's Dubai, so why not?)
Flanked by the one-mile long Jumeirah Beach Residences in the background and the Arabian Gulf beyond.
I still have friends and relatives who believed I lived in some sort of Bedouin tent during my four years in Dubai. You know, going to work on a camel, determinedly plowing my way through sandstorms, that sort of thing. But I have to say, this Middle Eastern marvel-city was the most comfortable place I've ever lived in. Yes, really.  And on top of that, it's shiny, new, glassy, in-your-face, and unabashedly OTT - like Vegas, only less jaded.

(All photographs by Weng Ho.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Portrait: Evelyn Kat

My erstwhile travelling cousin and buddy to Bali, Singapore, KL, Paris, London,
Kota Kinabalu, Dubai and parts of South Australia.
Photograph by Weng Ho at the Louvre in Paris.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What I Wish I Needed To Have

 I always say, if you don't need one of these to keep track of your monthly salary,
it's time to ask for a raise.
As seen in a home electonics store in downtown Shenzhen, China.

Let There Be Light.....Lots and Lots of It - HK Skyline

According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA,) light pollution is defined as
"any adverse effect of artificial light including sky glow, glare, light trespass,
decreased visibility at night, and energy waste." 

  And to think I was so sure Dubai was the city to beat for light pollution.
It doesn't hold a candle (or a gazillion flourescent bulbs) to Hong Kong.
 Sure is pretty, though......

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bite-Size Review: Yet Con Hainanese Chicken Rice Restaurant, Singapore

Am headed to Singapore next week - seems like I'm going there at least once a month this year - and even though I'm on a self-imposed limited-carb diet, I'll try to squeeze in a visit to this old-school Hainanese chicken rice restaurant on Purvis Street.  Went there once before a couple of years back, and I have to say I like it way better than any of those homogenous, generic, mass-produced versions that you find in any of the Lion City food courts.

In a nutshell, here are the pluses: 
-  The chicken is not slimy - believe me, that's the whole game changer right there.  Those hardy kampung chickens they serve are stripped of nearly all fatty bits and that gelatinous goop found in other joints.
-  The rice has excellent flavour and the right consistency.
-  The other menu offerings - the pork chop and fried hor-fun especially - are equally yums.
-  The pre-independence interior decor, complete with a cranky old coot who glowers at diners when he's not clacking away at his abacus, is charming.
-  The blessed, blessed air-conditioning.

The minuses?  Well, the service is not stellar by any tolerant standards, and that Yet Con Overlord (see picture below) won't win any personality awards, but heck, it's not like you'd head there for chit-chats and to make new BFFs.  Just tell 'em to keep those drumsticks coming, and hold the stink-eye.
Surreptitiously took this photo after being expressly told off by Cranky Old Coot for doing so. 
Avoided eye contact with him for the rest of meal for fear of turning into a pillar of salted chicken.
Yet Con Hainanese Chicken Rice Restaurant - 25 Purvis Street, Singapore.
Telephone +65 63376819

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Portrait: Susanne Hatje

I miss surfing and I miss my surfing buddy. 
It'd be safe to say that I might not have taken up surfing if
she didn't sign up for classes with me at North Shore all those years ago.
Photograph taken during a perfect surfing day at North Shore, Oahu in 2004.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bite-Size Review: Gayang Seafood Restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

I love restaurants that are recommended by locals. 
Now, I just knew I had to have some seafood when I was recently in Kota Kinabalu so when I asked various residents which were the best restaurants in town, all of them pretty much told me to head for a) Gayang, b) Salut, and c) Welcome - in no particular order.  Since I had limited time, I didn't get to go to all three, but I managed to dine at Welcome and Gayang instead. 

Best dining decisions I ever made during the entire trip. 
The open-air Gayang Seafood Restaurant - bring your appetite and lots of mosquito repellent.
Now, Welcome Seafood Restaurant was fine - it's closer to town (in fact, it's right in KK itself) and takes up almost the entire ground-floor length of a plaza at KK Town Centre.  Has rapid service and excellent local food at extremely reasonable prices.  But if I had to go choose between the two, I'd go back to Gayang, if only for the warehouse, open-air dining atmosphere and of course, their fantastic selection of seafood, freshly caught from the neighbouring waters.  It's a tad far from the city's downtown core - about a 30-minute drive - but it's only about seven minutes from where I was staying at Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort in Dalit Bay.
The seemingly-photoshopped views of the dramatic sunset from the massive dining hall. 
I loved the place the moment I drove up the steep slope to where the restaurant was perched - on a small hill overlooking the mangrove swamps and the rainforest jungle beyond.  There's no air-conditioning, mood lighting or fancy carpeting.  Just one wide open, breezy, pillarless hall with one wall stacked with double rows of tanks brimming with fresh seafood that you have to select; it's also  where you decide and fill your entire dinner order before they even let you sit at a table.  And no, there's no menu to peruse and dawdle over either.  It's like the Seafood Nazi version of dining, but kinder.

Here are some of the highlights of what we had:
Steamed mud crabs (RM35 or USD11 each)
Stir-fried clams with ginger and scallions (RM20 or USD6.40)
Deep-fried batter chicken (RM15 or USD4.80 )

Tuaran mee (noodles) - the local signature dish (RM10 or USD3.20)
Steamed prawns (RM60)

Soy-sauce saucers: a highly effective method in preventing flying insects
from kamikaze-ing into your Heinekens
With the beer and various assorted soft drinks, our bill came to just over RM500 (USD160) for nine amazing courses inhaled by four adults and two children under five years old.  Pretty reasonable, considering the portion sizes and the super freshness of our seafood.  Three things to note though: there are no pork dishes on the menu, advance reservations are highly recommended, and yes, be prepared to ingest some bugs now and then as part of your Gayang dining experience.

Gayang Seafood Restaurant - Kampung Baharu, Jalan Sulaiman, Tuaran, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Telephone +60 16 810 2395

Does Homeland Know About This?

Took this picture while walking to my plane at Kota Kinabalu airport. Was told sternly by a
nearby official that I was not allowed to take any photos. Was ready to receive an earful of stock
"for the sake of security" admonishments, but instead he said the reason that I can't take any pictures
was because that would "cause the fuel pump next to the plane to explode."


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Where I Stayed: Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort in Kota Kinabalu

Ahh....Kota Kinabalu.  I was dreaming of my six-day vacay for weeks before I stepped onboard that Air Asia plane bound for Borneo.  And this postcard-ish photo below was everything I thought it would be.  Too bad the weather was a crap shoot throughout, although I have to say there were more good days than mediocre grey-skied ones.
View from Coast - my daily breakfast haunt that serves Prosecco, yes, sparkling wine
every morning.  What a brilliant way to start the day.
Of course, if you have to go to KK, opt for the slightly more "adult" of the two Shangri-La resorts - the Rasa Ria one in Dalit Bay over the Tanjung Aru resort that's closer to the city.  And if you do decide to book at Rasa Ria, splurge a little and go for the rooms in the Ocean Wing.  Opened only in 2008, the benefits of being in there means you can use the swimming pools that are exclusive for guests of the wing, there's a massive hot tub on your even more massive outdoor terrace, and you get complimentary daily breakfast at Coast that comes with a sizeable buffet in air-conditioned splendour with a 270-degree view of the beach and sea, free-flow sparkling wine, and a much less manic atmosphere and virtually no flying insects (unlike its sister outlet Coffee Terrace, where I'd made the unfortunate decision to breakfast one fine morning....never again.)
The blissful Ocean Wing swimming pool.
Pretty much the biggest selling point of this resort has to be the Nature Reserve with the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the only one in the region.  Guests can go on a daily "search for the orangutan" where they can view the orphaned primates from a platform.  Strictly no touching allowed (unlike the pandas in Chengdu, where anyone may hug them for a fee.)
Tuaran Mee (Noodles)
There's no shortage of local food at the resort, but Malaysians and Singaporean may do well to note that KK is not Penang or Kuala Lumpur.  So while you can still order familiar favourites such as laksa, nasi lemak, Hainanese chicken rice and such, there won't be any nasi padang, Hokkien mee or prawn noodles on the menus.  What I would recommend however ( Rome, do as Romans do, etc...) is to sample the signature dish of the town that the resort is in: Tuaran Mee.  It comprises of thin flat noodles specially made from batter of egg yolk and flour, and then stir-fried in high heat.  Local vegetables, seafood, and/or chicken may be added, depending on personal preferences and tastes.  The result is an eggier, lighter and tastier version of mee goreng (well, at least, it is to me.)
David, our genial and knowlegeable river cruise guide.
Activity-wise, I'm more of a pool- or beach-side lounger than anything else, but since I was with in the company of relatives who were toting around a 4-year and a 5-year old, I managed to check off bike riding, river cruising, a visit to Mount Kinabalu World Heritage Park, spa at the sister Tanjung Aru resort, ooh and ahh at a baby orangutan, and dine at two renowned local seafood restaurants from my bucket list.  All things considered, it was quite an eventful six days and nights in Borneo.
See ya later, KK.  Photo taken from Seat 25A.
By the way, I chose to fly non-stop from Hong Kong to KK on Air Asia over Dragonair, despite the former's budget status (and all the nothing-ness that goes with it) as it has waaaay better flight times than the latter's.  In the end, extended vacay hours - especially those at a luxe sunny beach resort -triumph over in-flight feeds (doesn't it always?)

Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort - Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
Telephone +6088 792 888

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shanghai Pedicure at Fun Feet Reflexology Centre

My Shanghai Pedicure sifu (master) working his magic on my big toe
How has it that I've been on this planet for decades and I've only found out about Shanghai pedicures just recently? Upon learning that I was going to move to Hong Kong, my friend Susanne, a former Wanchai resident herself, persuaded me to have one; I believe her exact words were "your feet will feel pounds lighter after a session."  She wouldn't elaborate futher, only to state that it would be a much, much better experience than the Western version.

Well, with an endorsement like that, I immediately made an appointment at one of the two Fun Feet Reflexology Centres in Happy Valley (the executive chef of The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong swears by the Wong Nai Chung outlet.) Wasn't quite sure what to expect when this stern-looking older gentleman carried over two 100 watt spotlights, a small container filled with sterilized razors, and settled down comfortably in a little stool in front of me. After lifting each of my foot (that had been previously soaked in a barrel of hot water - all the better to tenderize the calloused skin, don't you know) and examining them like the fine biological specimens that they were, he then proceeded to remove every single nano-cell of dead skin from the cuticles, heels, bottoms and sides - yes, still only with those sharpened razors - with expert precision and care.  I ventured to ask him, in halting Cantonese, how long a Shanghai pedicure usually took. He looked at my much-abused feet and replied, "for you, long time."

Well, a "long time" turned out to be 37 minutes exactly (and no, we do not get to pick a nail polish colour at the end,) and my feet not only received the best treatment ever, but I also came away from Fun Feet armed with the sifu's sage and invaluable advice:

"Always wear slippers at home."

"Don't use cheap moisturizer." 

Fun Feet Reflexology Centre - Yee Fung Building, 1 Wong Nai Chung Rd, Hong Kong
Telephone: +852 2525 1108

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Road Trip: From Dead Sea to Amman to Unknown Parts of Jordan

So there I was at a three-day conference, comfortably ensconsed at the picturesque and family-oriented Jordan Valley Marriott Resort and Spa (situated an impressive 400 metres below sea level,) when I roused myself from imagining how much my papercuts are going to hurt when I float in the Dead Sea, to embark on what I thought would be an uneventful 50 kilometer drive into Amman for dinner.
One of the several pools at Jordan Valley Marriott Resort and Spa,
overlooking the Dead Sea and beyond that, Israel.
So the moment my last session ended at 6 p.m., we hopped into our Hertz-mobile and set out in the general direction of the capital.  Rather than take the highway, we opted for the scenic route which meant veering from the King's Highway onto a signless road up one of the mountain ranges between the Dead Sea valley and the city. 
The road to Madaba
We headed towards Madaba, the fifth most populous town in Jordan that dates back beyond 1300 B.C., is best known for ancient Byzantine mosaics, and is mentioned several times in the Bible (then again, it's not that difficult to find anyplace in this region that's not given a shout-out in the holy books.)
The road to Amman
After a quick look-see around Madaba, we turned left in the northern direction towards Amman.  There was one stop to make before heading to dinner: the Citadel, situated above the city on the hill of Jebel al-Qala'a, which has excavated ruins of an Ummayad palace dating from about AD 720, and the Temple of Hercules which was constructed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  Plus it's a great place to view the day's last sun rays on downtown Amman sprawled below.
Downtown Amman
It was nearly 7 o'clock when we got into the core of Amman; we could see the Citadel and the hill it was perched on, but for the life of Ripley, we couldn't find the route heading up there.  There it was, one of the most popular and historic attractions in the world, within eyeball range, and yet it was hopelessly and frustratingly out of reach.  We navigated through the madcap, eternal rush hour traffic, ventured through dozens of claustrophobic roads and side streets, taking care not to topple any street vendors' carts along the way, and tried in vain to match the rare obscure street signs to the ones listed on our woefully inadequate map, but no dice.  We alternatively circled around and barrelled through the city several times, and finally, somewhere along the way, we ended up on some highway that was headed towards the Syrian border.  Yes, that Syria.
Round and round we drove in downtown Amman.
By that time, we were driving through towns that were generally out of any regular tourist routes. There were zero English signs anywhere, no notable touristy landmarks to be found, and everyone only spoke Arabic.  That was truly one of the super rare times in our lives when we were at a loss as to where we were located, not just in the general vicinity of a city (and the capital, no less) but in the entire country.  Panic and gloom were starting to set in.  And hunger.  Definitely the hunger.
Driving through the streets of.....I'm not even sure where this is.
At the end, it was through sheer divine, mad, capitalistic luck how we eventually found ourselves back on track. You see, the people who'd created that sad Hertz-provided road map had struck a deal with the Subway sandwich chain of stores. So whatever it had lacked in its basic proper functionality as a map (like, you know, naming all roads and landmarks clearly,) it made up for by listing every single friggin' Subway outlet in Jordan. So never mind the wonders of the Byzantine era or the Middle Bronze Age; let's scoff at the ancient stargazers who could chart their way home by harnessing the power of the universe and the skies; no, we only need an American sandwich chain to steer us on the right highway "home."  Somewhere, I was sure Jared Fogle was smiling knowingly at our enlightened state brought to us by his corporate sponsor, as he chomped down on a foot-long Meatball Marinara.

So long story short, we'd gone in the northeastern direction way, way, waaaay beyond Amman and its treasures, to a point where we were more than 30 kilometers away from the capital and a whopping 80 kilometers from our hotel.   To recap, we never got within spitting distance of the Citadel or Temple of Hercules, we totally missed having dinner (and I was so looking forward to sampling the Jordanian national dish of mansaf - lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice,)  we'd been driving dementedly and determinedly for four and a half hours, and our backs and legs were cramped from sitting prone in the not-Mercedes S Class all that time. 

It definitely didn't feel like it then - you know, back when we were starving, moody and achy - but yeah, it's definitely one of those Lucy moments where we can now look back on that crazy, long drawn out evening, and laugh our asses off.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bite-Size Review: In-Room Dining at Shangri-La Hotel, Ningbo

I don't usually wax lyrical over two types of food: those that are served in trays 30,000 feet above ground (even the type found in First and Business classes) and those that are wheeled into your hotel room.  I still have not yet really experienced superlative cuisine in the friendly skies, but I recently had one of the best meals of my life served on a trolley, not two feet away from a king-sized bed topped with six oversized down pillows.  At a Shangri-La Hotel.  In, of all places, Ningbo.
Buddha's Delight or Loh Hon Chai - traditional mixed vegetable stew with fermented beancurd
The best thing about this hotel's menu offerings is that they highlight the best, and I presume, the most popular dishes from their restaurants downstairs.  So we're not talking about the usual medley of club sandwiches, cheeseburgers and fries, pasta carbonara, roast chicken, and Caesar salads here.  No, what one gets is the same quality yummers that one normally has to wear presentable clothing, sit upright and use proper cutlery in a public setting to enjoy.  So, in the comfort of my generously-spaced river view deluxe room one evening in April, I dined on my selections from the (abridged) menus of the hotel's signature Cantonese restaurant Shang Palace, the southeast Asian-influenced Yi Cafe, and the more cosmopolitan Lobster Bar & Grill.  And I didn't even have to wear my shoes.
Poached fillet of white cod
Double-boiled sea cucumber with fish maw soup.

The uninterrupted dinner view from my room,
overlooking the confluence of the three rivers through the city.

Shangri-La Hotel, Ningbo - 88 Yuyuan Road, Jiangdong District, Ningbo, Zhejiang, 315040, China
Telephone +86 574 8799 8888.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Eat Your Heart Out, Ralph Lauren

According to my fashion-savvy cousin Evelyn,
this is the only age group that can rock that giant RL logo.

I agree.
Photograph of six-year old Alex Caveney taken by his mom Dr. Evelyn Kat in Adelaide, Australia
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