Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kampong Glam and the Malay Heritage Centre

Last November R and I finally made it to the Malay Heritage Centre, which is the national museum dedicated to the culture and history of Singapore's original ethnic group (there are also museums for the Chinese, Eurasian and Peranakan--mixed Chinese-Malay--ethnic groups).
The domes of Sultan Mosque are clearly visible from the museum grounds
Street of shophouses: I love them
When Singapore was founded, it was geographically divided on ethnic lines, and to some extent these demarcations still apply (Little India is very Indian, for example): the museum is located in the heart of the old Malay district, Kampong Glam, a short walk from one of Singapore's oldest and most important mosques, Sultan Mosque (still a center for Muslim activities).
Sultan Mosque, a national landmark
Like most mosques I've visited, non-Muslims are not allowed inside the prayer hall. With appropriate dress (hijabs are provided) you CAN peek inside, however.
The surrounding area is quite charming and a popular destination for 1. fabric shopping (all the best fabric stores are located along nearby Arab Street) 2. Arab-themed nightlife (lots of sheesha or hookah places) and 3. Middle Eastern restaurants. The architecture is mostly shophouses, which to me means an attractive, walkable environment.
Pedestrian-only street: in the evening many restaurants have open-air dining here
R and I ate Malay food at a traditional street restaurant. I had Beef Rendang(in spicy coconut-based sauce, so good), green beans and fried rice. R had soy milk, rice and ice cream: she hates all spicy food.
The museum itself is lodged in the old Astana (palace) of the sultan of Johor (who ceded Singapore to the British in 1819 in exchange for a hefty payment, enough to live in comfortable luxury). When we visited, the museum was holding a very interesting exhibit on traditional Malay medicine and health care.
R pointing out things of interest to me
Traditional medicine is of course plant-based, many of which are edible and consumed as tonics
Tigers used to be used for medicinal purposes too. I like this picture because it's so cliche, white fully clothed guy with a gun, a dead predator, and lots of unnamed "bearers".
I found the section on childbirth the most interesting
Wrapping (what the woman is doing in the bottom picture) postpartum is still ubiquitous here and I know multiple people who have had it done (Malay and otherwise). It's supposed to considerably aid in recovery and I think if I had a child here I would get it done.
It was surprisingly child friendly, with many interactive elements, including film, audio and even the opportunity to smell some of the different herbs used medicinally. I was impressed.
R loves the video elements
Display on male circumcision, which traditionally is done around 12 or 13 without painkillers. Ouch!
Smell station, so cool
The museum also hosts various child friendly public events, including shadow puppet performances, the chance to play traditional Malay games, movie nights and so on. I look forward to taking R to some in the near future.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Singapore Shophouses

Most of Singapore is comprised of enormous post-1960 housing and office blocks, generally neatly painted in various shades of white or pastels.
But since Singapore has been a densely populated city for almost two hundred years, there is in fact a fair amount of historic architecture, which nowadays is mostly lovingly tended and strictly regulated (urban development projects at one time meant massive destruction, in favor of constructing the space efficient high-rises: but this is no longer the case).
Shophouse street
I love the architectural details
I went on a tour late last year of Singapore's "shophouses", one of the unique architectural forms of Southeast Asia. They are mostly two or three story buildings built in rows, open to the street on the first floor (where the covered pavement area in front, or "five foot way", becomes a combination continuation of the building's purpose and public footpath): typically this level would be used as a store, with residential quarters above. They are usually very narrow but deep, and to provide light in these conditions almost always include an interior courtyard open to the sky (same as the Romans! makes my classicist side happy).

Originally the second larger set of doors would have stood open most of the time, for coolness
The back of the shophouses: they run an entire block-length
They are still lived in, though nowadays mostly as luxury and very expensive accommodation (gone are the days when 15 families would cram together in one building, each limited to a single room). We used to go to playdates at one woman's shophouse (before she moved to a luxury condo property for the facilities). I love their historical charm and detail, even if actually living in one is beyond both my price range and my interest in home management (the space is large and requires a lot of upkeep).
It's for rent!
Currently lived-in shophouse
Pretty swanky, no?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Life Update, August

We went to Vietnam for a week for my birthday, which was surprisingly enjoyable (both because I have had trouble enjoying myself of late, and because we had a rather bad time there on our last visit, including getting chased by a knife-wielding maniac).

I am finally feeling significantly better and have made real progress. The almost-nightly meltdowns and suicide threats have vanished, and while I still get upset it is both much less dramatic and shorter-lived (it used to take me hours or even days to get back to baseline, for instance). I wouldn't say that I am completely better yet, but maybe at 70 or 80%? It's a little hard to judge, because part of being mentally ill is that your reality is a bit distorted. When I was really ill, I would have said that of course I was a little depressed, but there was nothing seriously wrong with me: I used to argue with B about this actually, as he wanted me to acknowledge that I was really ill, and I was only sporadically willing to do this (depending on my mental state at the time). It seemed like such a personal failure to admit to even myself how crazy I was, especially because I don't have a good "excuse" (ie no abusive or unloving family, history of sexual assault or something similarly lurid).

I haven't really written that much about my mental problems, both because of the denial issue and because when you are having mental problems, you do not have either the energy or mental organization for writing anything, even blog posts. The denial issue is by far the more important factor though. I don't keep the fact that I have had mental problems a secret (if only because I am the world's worst liar): all my friends and family know that I have been depressed and struggling. I still feel like I am keeping secrets though, because no one knows the full extent of things except B, really. Telling people that you have been having problems with depression and anxiety, and are thus seeing a therapist, doesn't really communicate "FUCKED UP" if you are simultaneously well dressed, articulate, cheerful and a calm, loving parent.

Leaving out the parts that DO communicate such a thing (like the fact that for a while I attempted to hurl myself out of our high-rise apartment windows several times a week, requiring B to literally physically restrain me) makes me feel like a fraud. There is no way I am going to tell anyone this stuff, though, both because it is TMI for almost everyone except the very closest, and I don't want to upset those people (my parents, for example) because it would cause them frantic worry and yet there's nothing they can do. Maybe this is a good reason to have an anonymous blog...

Beyond mental drama and visiting Vietnam, things have been fairly quiet around here. We went to Batam again (fun!), went to Pulau Ubin again and went hiking at Sungei Buloh again on successive weekends (a good sign, because non-depressed-Amanda likes to see/do stuff while crazy Amanda can't handle any variations from routine).

R is a great joy to both B and me. She is all jokes and fun and imagination, up for almost anything (she loves exploring and is tremendously curious about everything, from the emperor's palace in Vietnam to banana trees in Pulau Ubin), and seems to get older by the nanosecond. She is so affectionate and loving ("Mommy, I weally love you. I love you just the way you are.") and wants nothing more than to be with us 24-7 (even if some of that time would involve ignoring us while we sat at attention). She has her moments of tantrum and naughtiness, but they are really minor in the scheme of things. More tiring are her enthusiasm and energy, which are both very high (not in the hyper sense, in the verve sense: that word seems to have been coined just for R). But without them she would not be herself, and honestly to me she is perfect. I couldn't imagine a better child (which sounds horribly sappy but is the truth).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Magic Years

When R was younger, she did some pretend play (making believe to talk on the telephone, for instance), which at the time I thought was charming and creative: but compared to her elaborate fantasy life now, it was small potatoes. She now spends many of her waking hours inhabiting other worlds via her imagination. She especially likes imitating books and TV shows she's seen, where she is usually the heroic main character and I am one (or all) of the supporting characters. Favorites include Dora or Diego from Dora the Explorer, Cubbi from Gummi BearsFrances the Badger, and Tintin.
Sometimes she is "Super Zora", who saves everyone (especially baby animals, who I have to imitate), sometimes she goes on picnics with all the stuffed animals (what she's doing above, thus the picnic blanket), sometimes she does the dishes (her plastic ones, in the bathroom sink as the kitchen sink is too high for her to reach)...Lately she's been wanting to reenact upsetting situations. Today she got in an argument with an older boy at the playgym (he was tearing down some stuffed blocks, Zora told him to stop, he didn't and so she pushed him--he was maybe 2-3 years older but Zora is not very timid). I scolded her for pushing and told her she had to use words: then she wanted to reenact the whole scene with me as the boy, I suppose as a kind of practice so that she could behave properly next time.
It's to the point that she rarely plays with her (many) toys, except as props in the fantasy games, when they are usually something else (pens become syringes for giving shots, books become birthday presents, the stuffed animals are all alive, etc, etc). And if B and I were cooperative, she would spend all day long playing pretend games, with us as the supporting cast. Unfortunately for R, our endurance for being Chang or Gusto or Boots is limited: usually I can only last for about 30 minutes before feeling like I will go crazy out of boredom. Sometimes I dread the little voice ordering me, "You be X".

Mostly, though, it's totally charming. I love it best when she is immersed in her fantasy play, quietly talking to herself as she acts out the different scenarios (like in the picture above): there is something so pure and beautiful about it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Books Read: March and April 2014

March 3rd: For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, Alice Miller. Interesting book detailing how childhood trauma or abuse might create self-destructive and/or violent individuals (most notoriously, Hitler, which I found to be the most compelling part of the book). Well written and convincing, but completely speculative: despite her authoritative tone, the author has almost no evidence for anything. I found this a bit misleading. Grade: B-
March 5th: Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian. First in the 20-book series about a ship's captain and his best friend, a naval surgeon (and spy), during the Napoleonic Wars. The best series of historical fiction I have ever come across and a must-read for anyone who enjoys this genre. Grade: A.
March 10th: Post Captain, Patrick O'Brian. Even better than the first in the series, thanks to the inclusion of female characters and showing the characters in more diverse situations. Grade: A+.
March 14th: H.M.S. Surprise, Patrick O'Brian. The third in the Aubrey-Maturin series, and another wonderful entry. Highlights include Stephen's time in India and the battle scenes, which O'Brian does incredibly well. Grade: A+.
March 20th: The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, Robert Lacey. I love books about daily life in the past, and this one is a good one, including all kinds of minutiae (like how monks communicated despite vows of silence, what people ate, and how they dealt with not having buttons). It's short, easy to read and highly informative. Grade: A.


April 16th: The Mauritius Command, Patrick O'Brian. Fourth in the Aubrey-Maturin series, with some interesting psychological studies, particularly that of Lord Clonfert. Grade: A.
April 18th: Desolation Island, Patrick O'Brian. Spying, adventure on the high seas, shipwrecks...the fifth in the series is exciting as always. Grade: A.
April 18th: The Fortune of War, Patrick O'Brian. Another wonderful entry in the Aubrey-Maturin series: the middle part does lag slightly (but only slightly). Grade: A-.
April 20th: Tigers in Red Weather, Liza Klaussmann. Two WASP cousins and their families experience various travails from the 1940s-1960s. A typical book club read (and in fact read for that purpose), it was OK. Grade: C.
April 21st: Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Very short novel about two Englishwomen in India, one in the 1920s who has an affair with an Indian prince, one in the 1980s who, while doing research on the first, has affairs with first an English Hindu convert, then her married Indian landlord. Sounds kind of sordid but is actually evocative and well written, with interesting, unconventional female characters. Grade: A-.
April 24th: The Surgeon's Mate, Patrick O'Brian. Excellent as always: the scenes in a French prison are particularly humorous. Grade: A.
April 28th: The Ionian Mission, Patrick O'Brian. A bit slow compared to some of the others, though the ending section redeems itself. Grade: A-.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Surabaya: Trowulan, Ancient Capital of the Majapahit Empire

Wrigin Lawang, the Banyan Tree Gate
The main reason I wanted to visit Surabaya was to tour Trowulan, the ancient site of the Majapahit Empire. Most people have never heard of either the site or the empire (including me until recently), but Majapahit was one of the greatest Southeast Asian empires, ruling over much of Indonesia and Malaysia during its heyday.

It's had an immense influence in the region: Indonesian art, architecture, and literature are all directly traceable to Majapahit, including most of Balinese culture. The Indonesian national flag is derived from Majapahit's royal colors, for example.

The capital of Majapahit was Trowulan, which is located an easy drive away from Surabaya. It was destroyed in 1478, and today only ruins remain, surrounded by rice fields and countryside. Excavations are still underway: the government has submitted the site to UNESCO for inclusion on the World Heritage List and hopes to make Trowulan into a major tourist destination. When I visited, though, I was the only Westerner and even the Indonesian tourists were few, despite it being a Saturday.
Candi Tikus
Candi Brahu

Bajang Ratu
There is a small onsite museum, though English captions are few (and in fact captions/explanatory text is general was rather sparse). The museum as a whole definitely needed some infusion of professionalism: it was not really ready for international visitors despite the sweet staff. Even finding an English map of the site was a challenge.
The museum building
Grounds with reliefs collected from the site
I thought they were quite beautiful
Reconstruction of a typical commoner's house

The ruins themselves, while highly interesting to me, are not spectacular in the way that, for example Borobudur or Prambanan are. Perhaps as the excavations continue, more will be unearthed and a fuller picture of what the ancient city looked like will emerge. More explanatory text or printed guides would also be helpful and add to the experience.
Some of the excavations
More ancient walls
I was happy just to be on the site of the ancient city and to use my imagination to reconstruct the past: if this is not one of your pleasures though, Trowulan currently leaves something to be desired. I hope that the government's efforts result in a more appropriate showcasing of this very important site.
Happy as a clam at my favorite activity, ruin viewing

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Surabaya: Hotel Majapahit

I liked Surabaya for its energy: but there is no doubt that it is a relatively ugly city, with all the problems that poor cities tend to have: horrible traffic, overcrowding, chaos...Luckily for my spirits, our hotel was a real gem and the nicest place I saw in the city. I highly recommend a stay to anyone visiting Surabaya, especially because it is reasonably priced (under $100/night).
R likes the hotel too!
The Hotel Majapahit is one of the grand colonial hotels built by the Sarkies brothers (also responsible for the Raffles in Singapore and the E&O in Georgetown) and like the others has wonderful colonial architecture, all-suite rooms, and excellent service.

 The grounds provide a restful oasis from the intensity of the city, and the pool is a great break from the hot, sticky weather.

Classic car in the lobby

I loved the detailing especially
R in the garden with some bronze geese
I felt like our trip was almost worth it just to stay here!