Starting the Day Right...

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Majulah Singapura! Celebrating SG50 as One United People

So glad to be able to participate in this year's National Day Parade to celebrate Singapore's 50th Birthday as an independent nation.  
Many highlights - the ariel fly-past, mobile column, the short video commemorating Mr Lee Kuan Yew's life, the emotional climax of "Home" right at the end and the recital of the Pledge and the singing of the National Anthem.  Sadly my seat did not provide that great a view of the fireworks.  The floating platform's probably the best.
There are better reports elsewhere, so I won't elaborate.  My own photos and videos can be found here on Flickr.
But what was quite moving was that there were people wearing red throughout the day - when I went for mass, when I went for lunch.  It was a sign of solidarity for the day, that we were One United People.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

An Ancient Imperial City

Main Entrance into the Imperial City
For over a hundred years, Hue was the capital city of Vietnam under the Emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. The Imperial City was their seat of power.  Here at this site by the Perfumed River, they built strong, high walls around their throne hall, the administrative offices of their mandarins and the Forbidden Purple City, a citadel within a citadel where only the Emperor and his inner household (read wife, concubine and eunuchs) could step foot.

Our resort provided a free shuttle bus to the citadel, but it left at 10am and by the time it reached Hue around noon, the sun was blazing.  So, sunglasses, hat and scarf were in order.  And sunblock too, on the face and arms.  I could see why the locals wore long sleeved, loose clothing - the traditional aodai perfectly suits the climate!

There are many perfectly good sites describing the Imperial City, such as this, and this virtual walking tour of
Ruins of the Purple Forbidden City, from a newly restored corridor
the Citadel.  So I will not reproduce my route but instead go into the details which held more interest for me.  Sadly, in any case, much of the Imperial City was bombed during the Vietnam War and was destroyed, in particular most of the Forbidden Purple City.  Whilst restoration (or maybe re-creation) work is being done, there is still much to go.

From what I understand from Vietnamese history, the Nguyen Emperors were the last to rule Vietnam.  After WWII, the line of the Emperors stopped as Vietnam became torn in two between Ho Chi Minh and the communists in the north and the republicans in the South.  Eventually, of course, the communists won the day.  One would have supposed that they would have totally repudiated the legacy of the monarchy.  And they did, except for one detail.

The To Temple with Dynastic Urn
Peacock on Dynastic Urn
For whatever else they did, the Vietnamese Emperors had sent their ships out into the surrounding waters, out into the South China Sea where they laid claim to the islands in the area - such as the Spratlys and the Paracels.  In other words the two hottest properties in South East Asia today!

These activities were recorded, on the maps of the time and on the nine dynastic urns that one of the Nguyen Emperors commissioned.  The urns stand outside the Hian Lam Pavilion, across from the The To Mieu  Temple - where most of the Emperors of the Nguyen dynasty are commemorated.  The urns depict, amongst other things, scenes of the countryside and of the sea, of flowers and birds and beasts (including one peacock).

The accompanying commentary and description of the urns in the Hian Lam pavillion points out that they also record the "East Sea" (I could not find this though - but searching for individual decorations on nine gigantic urns in the hot sun is not easy, it is not unexpected that we miss things), presumably east of Vietnam, which would be the South China Sea.    So this is "evidence", at least from Vietnam's perspective, of the country's historic claims to the Spratlys and Paracels.

Map Detail
These claims are further reinforced by the maps.  Behind the great audience chamber of the Thai Hoa Palace - where sits the Imperial Throne - there is a smaller hall which contains maps of the South China Sea, again with the Spratlys and Paracels demarcated as being in Vietnamese territory.  There is a map in French - ie the French also recognised these historic boundaries.  

The competing claims of the various parties contending for ownership of the Spratlys and Paracels will take much time to go into.  Other countries will have their own evidence.  I am no expert, and putting this up on my blog does not indicate I am taking sides one way or another; it is purely to indicate the interesting point that the present day communist leaders of Vietnam are using the records of the Imperial administration to support their claims.

Detail - Thai Binh Pavilion
The other highlight of the Imperial City was, to me, the Emperor's little reading pavilion, Thai Binh Pavilion.  Situated deep into the Forbidden Purple City, it is one of the few buildings not destroyed by the bombing.  Ornate mosaic decorations adorn the roof and walls of this charming little building.  The Emperor's reading room faces a pond with rock garden in the middle so that he can rest his eyes on this peaceful scene when he wants to take a break.

After our visit, we took a cyclo to the French Boulangerie, a small little cafe which we located in (I believe) Lonely Planet.  This little cafe is a social enterprise, set up to train disadvantaged youth to be bakers.  The food itself was simple - we had a "Baguette Brest" which is essentially bread topped with cheese, ham, onions, tomato paste etc.  There was also a very welcome ice cream for dessert.  Not quite an "Imperial" meal, but warm and tasty nonetheless.

This is my fourth visit to Vietnam and I find that the more I visit, the more I find of interest.  In Hanoi we explored the ancient capital and the beautiful Ha Long Bay.  In Central Vietnam, the old town of Hoi An and the Imperial Capital at Hue.  In Ho Chi Minh City, I learnt more about the Vietnam war and visited the Mekong Delta.  And still so much more to see.....

More Hue photos found here.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Resort Living in Lang Co, Vietnam

Our Resort - Angsana Lang Co

Vietnam is a great place to visit.  Good food, historic buildings, beautiful scenery, lovely resorts.  This time round we got to sample all of them.

We stayed at Angsana Lang Co, the "low cost" version of Banyan Tree.  Not that we were complaining though - the resort itself was perfectly situated just next to its more "atas" sibling and shared the same beautiful sandy beach.

And, I can't complain about having a suite with a big balcony and well-appointed bathrom.  See pictures of the resort here.

It was hot though - really hot.  In early June, the dawn comes around 4am and twilight at 7pm.   I suppose this is what is the norm for farming communities,so that the farmers wake up and work in the cool of the day.  We learnt, pretty quickly, that we too needed to wake up early in the morning if we wanted to have a swim in the cool of the morning.  From 10am to 3pm, all we wanted to do was laze in our room or in the spa.

The bay area 
Lang Co is a village about 1 hour north from Danang, and is supposedly one of the most beautiful bays in Vietnam (see this link).... I guess I will need to visit more bays to make a more educated assessment!  But it is indeed a beautiful place - the drive takes us along the coast with absolutely stunning views of misty mountains and clear waters.  We would travel this route repeatedly, to visit Hoi An and Hue.

I have of course visited Hoi An before - see my post on my previous trip.  But it was a pleasure indeed to revisit this charming little town.(See the photos of this trip on my Flickr page). In particular, I like walking around in the evening, when the the air is cool and the glow of the lanterns light the streets.

Nu's eatery
Re-reading the post, I remember now that I was not too thrilled about the food.  But this time round, we took our chances at a little restaurant further away from the main tourist strip.  And we were rewarded indeed, by a truly yummy meal of Vietnamese style kong bak pau (!), pomelo salad and a yummy Hue style noodle in a pork ragu with rice cracker strips on top. We finished off with ice cream - when I tried chilli ice cream for the first time.  Believe me, it has a kick to it.

So if you are in Hoi An, try it out. Nu's Eatery is at 10A Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

There was never a cat like him

Dinky on thealert
My family recently said good bye to one of our most adorable cats - Dinky, or Dinky Darling as we affectionately named him.  Dinky came to us as a kitten.  One of four kittens, his sister disappeared and one brother got knocked down before we decided to take Dinky and his remaining brother Winky into our home.

Dinky's siblings- Inky, Winky and his lookalike Binky
Dinky and remaining sibling Winky
Dinky amply repaid our kindness with lots of kitty love and affection.  He was always ready to be cuddled and stroked, and had this most appealing way of looking at us in adoration with his big luminous green eyes.  Of course this earned him more strokes, cuddles and kisses.  Dinky was always on the look out for what was happening and even when we called one of the other cats Dinky would also come running.

Dinky with his mousie
Other adorable little habits: jumping onto the bed (or sofa) and clambering all over me to be stroked and hugged (he always was, at least for a moment) before snuggling down next to me.  Sweet little mew when looking for food.  Jumping up when watching TV, coming when he is called ready for a hug.  Allowing you to rub his tummy, to do his exercises, could do anything with him.  Timid and a little afraid of others but with his family, and those he got to know better, he was the most affectionate of cats.  
Utter Abandon - after disposing of the cardboard sheet

Dinky was also very good with other cats - at least with little kittens/ young cats who joined our family.  And there were many!  Dinky dealt with them all with patience, affection and lots of licks.

Dinky and little niece Ariel

Dinky would depart just when he was around 9.5 years or so.  We didn't suspect anything but realised he was getting a little lethargic- we thought it would pass.  Then we found some bumps and lumps growing, one on his head and the other on his back.  His lethargy increased and he ate less and less.  Finally we brought to the vet, took an x-ray and heard suspicions that it was cancer.  The situation worsened, and his breathing got more laboured. Eventually, we took him to the vet for that final goodbye.  

I took some time to write this post -- he left us on 4 June but the feelings of loss are still there and I still miss him very much.  Goodbye dearest Dinky Darling.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Farewell, Mr Lee

Queue at the Padang, Thursday
Singapore's Founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, passed away at 3.18am, on the 23rd of March 2015, at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) where he had been warded for severe pneumonia.  This triggered the start of a week of national mourning.  People from all walks of life mourned his loss.  They left tributes at SGH, where he passed away, at the Istana, where the private family wake was held, and at Parliament where he lay in state until his funeral service on 29th March.  Thousands waited for hours, queuing to pay their last respects (myself amongst them).  Each journey his coffin subsequently took was made through streets line with people.  Everyone wanted to say good bye to one of the founding fathers of modern Singapore.  

Mr Lee said once that Singaporeans are champion grumblers.  Somehow, this week, we decided to prove him wrong for once.  Despite hours queueing in the hot sun, despite more hours in the rain waiting for the funeral cortege to pass, Singaporeans took it all with good humour.  Strangers handed out drinks, food and umbrellas to those waiting in line.  We remembered the uncommon privilege we had in growing up in a society where success in life did not depend on the family you were born to or the colour of your skin.  It was a time which bound us together as Singaporeans.  Amidst all the sorrowful thoughts, there was a confidence that we could go on as one nation, one people, one Singapore.

Aside from queuing (mercifully, for only three hours), I visited the tribute site at SGH and also waited by the roadside for the funeral cortege to pass.  But much time was spent reading through the many newspaper articles, including in overseas newspapers, talking about his legacy.  Some critics complained that the hype in the media was just another attempt at propaganda by the ruling party. But the mass turnout, far greater than anticipated, and the soaring of the Singapore spirit indeed showed SIngaporeans' true respect and gratitude for Mr Lee.

At the SGH Tribute Site

Goodbye, Mr Lee.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"To be as good a monk as I can"

After reading "The Seven-storey Mountain", I was inspired to start on "The Sign of Jonas", Merton's journal of his life after entering the monastery, through the period of his novitiate to his ordination as a priest, and in the early years of his priesthood.  It shows how Merton came to understand the nature of his vocation better, and how his writing formed part of his vocation too.  As he says, "To be as good a monk as I can, and to remain myself, and to write about it: to put myself down on paper, in such a situation, with the most complete simplicity and integrity, masking nothing, confusing no issues..." (p234).

In terms of style, it is quite a different book - the first was done as a narrative, whilst this is more a journal and series of reflections about his life. I must admit that the narrative style of "Mountain" appealed to me far more, and frankly the drama of Merton's search for Christ and his yearning to enter the monastery is more exciting than figuring out that he was really meant to be a Cistercian rather than a Carthusian.  (I guess it was a little educational for me though, as I didn't really know anything about both Cistercians and Carthusians before reading this book).

Having said that, there are many worthwhile reflections and points to ponder in "Jonas".  Here are my favourites:
  • On God's love. If He can be said to thirst it is because He thirsts to do us good, to share His infinite Life with us.  But we prevent Him by our selfishness from doing so. Detatchment will procure for us the greatest good, the pure love of God for Himself alone because He alone is good: amor amicitiae. That is the bond of perfection that unites us to Him.  "Above all things have charity, which is the bond of perfection and may the peace of Christ exult in your hearts, in which you are called unto one Body.  And be grateful".  (Colossians, 3:14-15) (p39)
  • On the Trappists' attitude towards work.  If we want something, we easily persuade ourselves that what we want is God's will just as long as it turns out to be difficult to obtain.  What is easy is my own will: what is hard is God's will... ... And because we make fetishes out of difficulties we sometimes work ourselves into the most fantastically stupid situations, and use ourselves up not for God but for ourselves. (p41)
  • On Martyrdom.  There is nothing magnificent about us.  We are miserable things and if we are called upon to die we shall die miserably... .... And perhaps we are already marked for sacrifice - a sacrifice that will be, in the eyes of the world, perhaps only drab and soory and mean.  And yet it will end by being our greatest glory after all. (p79)
  • On Christ as the way to the Father.  Jesus came to us having nothing of His own.Not merely did he have nowhere to rest His head, not only was He poor on earth, but He explains that the very fact of His divine generation means that He has absolutely nothing of Himself and yet He is everything... ...He lived in the very heart of the Sabbath which is the interior life of God where "the Father works and I work". (p217)
  • On the grain of wheat.  I am alone in my insufficiency - dependent, helpless, contingent, and never quite sure that I am really leaning on Him upon whom I depend. Yet to trust in Him means to die, because to trust perfectly in Him you have to give up all trust in everything else. (p239)
  • On growing in faith.  ... I have discovered that after all what monks most need is not conferences on mysticism but more light about the ordinary virtues, whether they be faith or prudence, charity or temperance, hope or justice or fortitude. And above all what they need and what they desire is to penetrate the Mystery of Christ and to know Him in His Gospels and in the whole Bible... (p337)
  • On solitude. In this age of crowds in which I have determined to be solitary, perhaps the greatest sin would be to lament the presence of people on the threshold of my solitude.  Can I be so blind as to ignore that solitude is itself  their greatest need?  And yet if they rush in upon the desert in thousands, how shall they be alone?  What went they out into the desert to see? Whom did I myself come here to find but You, O Christ, Who have compassion on the multitudes. (p357)
In a way it was quite appropriate to read "Mountain" at Christmas, since it was really about Merton being reborn with Christ.  In a way "Jonas" is about Easter, because Merton is learning how to die to himself and live in Christ. So a good book to read during Lent!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

"A Bethlehem where Christ comes to be born"

One thing I like to do at the end of the year is to catch up on my serious reading. And with the rain pouring down every other day, sitting home with a good book in hand is often, indeed, the better choice.  Better still if it comes with a nice cookie and warm tea on the side :-)

Anyway, this December, I've been able to finish three books.  "The Accidental Diplomat", by Maurice Baker, is a series of stories of this veteran Ambassador's experiences, both in the Japanese occupation and after, including the highlights of his tours in India, Philippines and Malaysia.   Then, I tackled the massive biography of Dickens - "Charles Dickens: A Life", by Claire Tomalin.  This is the second time I've read Tomalin's meticulously researched biographies - the first was her life of Jane Austen.  Indeed, I really learnt so much more about Dickens than ever before! Of course I knew basic facts, like his early days spent working in the blacking factory whilst his father languished in the debtors' prison.  But I never realised the energy and drive which characterised him and on the negative side, I certainly didn't know he deserted his wife and had a secret mistress!

But the third book I finished, just on Christmas Day, was "The Seven Storey Mountain" (Harcourt Books, 1999 edition).  Thomas Merton's account of his spiritual journey - leading him to become first a Catholic and then a Trappist monk.  

Merton takes us through the key events of his life - marked with sorrow as he lost his mother at age 6, his father at age 16, and his younger brother about 10 years later, soon after he entered the monastry.  His brother was a bomber in WWII and he died when his plane went down.  It was one of the most poignant and moving moments in the book.

But the main thrust of the book was how Merton transformed from a wayward young man, into a fervent Catholic who went to daily mass (!), seeking for an ever-closer relationship with God.  His story was so inspiring that it led to young men all over the US looking for the nearest Trappist monastry.

I find it inspiring too - and would like to share my favourite quotes from the book here:
"When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal.  And when God's infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place.  And that is the life called sanctifying grace." (p186)
"...aseity - simply means the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justiication for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. There can be only one such Being: that is God." (p189)
"The life of the soul is not knowledge, it is love, since love is the act of the supreme faculty,the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of  all his strivings - by which man becomes one with God. " (p209)
"All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one.  Don't you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if only you will consent to let Him do it.  All you have to do is desire it." (p261)
"I had to be led by a way that I could not understand, and I had to follow a path that was beyond my own choosing.  God did not want anything of my natural tastes and fancies and selections until they had been more completely divorced from their old track, their old habits, and directed to Himself, by His own working." (p319) 
"The soul of the monk is a Bethlehem where Christ comes to be born - in the sense that Christ is born where His likeness is re-formed by grace, and whre His Divinity lives, in a special manner, with His Father and His Holy Spirit, by charity, in this "new incarnation," this "other Christ." (p417)
 Indeed, I do think the last quote applies not to just monks but for all of us.  Blessed Christmas to all, as we start off a new year ahead.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Hongkong - Peak and Protests

So, I visited Hongkong at the end of October.  It was a family visit - my mother and I stayed for a few days with my brother-in-law who is now based in Hongkong.  My sister joined us over the weekend as well.

We spent a few leisurely days wandering around Hongkong.  I've been a few times but can't really call myself a frequent visitor, so it was nice to visit new places and revisit old ones.

Journey on the Peak Tram
We spent our first morning visiting the Peak.  We were warned about the long queues for the peak tram but to our surprise, it was not too bad.  We managed to board the first train which came and chugged up, against what mut have been a 45 degree incline as the photo indicates.  Once on top, a panoramic view greeted us - the splendour of Central Hongkong, with a view of Kowloon on the other side.  

View from the Peak

We walked around for a bit, had lunch at Mak's Noodles and then made our way down via the little mini-bus.  In the past it was only the British colonial rulers who stayed here, up where the temperatures were cooler in the heat of a Hongkong summer, in splendid isolation away from the locals.  Today, it continues to be a very desirable and exclusive place to stay.  With the hill behind and the water in front, it's really good from the feng shui perspective too!  The downside?  From the mini bus, we could see the very steep roads going to some of the houses though - it's a tough climb for those going on foot.  

The Star Ferry
The mini-bus dropped us at Central and we walked over to take the Star Ferry over to Kowloon.  My
mother was pleased to see that actually senior citizens could travel for free!  We had Octopus cards handy though, so we paid the princely sum of HK$3.50 each to take one of the most iconic ferry journeys in the world. 

I had a purchase to make in Tsim Sha Tsui - cookies from "Jenny Bakery", a small Hongkong shop which sold buttery handmade cookies.  My colleagues had been regularly buying these cookies and bringing them to the office so I felt that it was my turn to reciprocate.  The cookies have become so
Read the placards carefully...
popular that apparently the queues extend outside the shopping centre where the shop is.  Competitors have emerged (their signs are pasted on the route to the bakery) as have fake Jenny Bakery shops - I encountered one for myself.  We were walking down Nathan Road on the way to Jenny Bakery when we saw these women with placards parading outside one of the shopping centers.  I did not think anything of them but my mother noticed that the placards were advertising for Jenny Bakery!  Curious, we followed them into the shopping centre but it was all too apparent that this was a fake store so we made our way out again to the real "Jenny".  Surprisingly, there were no queues in sight - just a few people ahead of me.  I bought my cookies and we made our way back.

Later, my brother-in-law said that according to his colleagues, the number of PRC tourists to HK had fallen due to the ongoing protests.  Hence, shorter queues, less crowds etc.  Well, for those of us who didn't stay away, that was certainly a positive!

"Occupy Central" at Admiralty
Of course, we visited the protest site.  It was the 32nd day of the protest, according to the umbrella calendar there.  We turned up at the Admiralty site on a Saturday morning, around 11ish.  The area was quiet, with students sleeping in their tents.  I suppose it had been a hard night's protesting.  It was nice to be able to wander around in peace to look at the colourful and imaginative posters, the "Lennon wall", the study area and so on.  It's been over a month since our visit, and it seems the protests are entering into their final stages with the sites being cleared by the authorities. Still the impression I am left with is the strong sense of idealism and the wish for a better tomorrow for Hongkong which was evident in all I saw.  Certainly it had to be the best organised protest I have ever seen (not that I have seen that many) with students organising their rubbish for recycling, the study area for them to catch up with their work etc etc.  Whatever the outcome, I wish Hongkong well.  

More pictures of my visit to Hongkong are on my Flickr page

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