30 September 2007

Life Is Full Of Ups And Downs

The above National Archives Of Singapore's photo of an old lift and the description of how it operated in my last post reminded Dr Tan Wee Kiat of one of his short grandfather stories.* (Note that the watermark on the photo is now right side up. NAS has proven to be an organisation which will not hesitate to turn things around, literally.)

I have modified the story a little. I hope Dr Tan won't mind:

Scenario - VIP visitor, who is a prominent lawyer, enters the old lift operated by an old man.

VIP: WOW! This old lift is manually-operated.

Old Man: Yes, it is an antique.

VIP: How do you like your job?

Old Man: Okay lah. Like every job, it has got its ups and downs.

VIP: It looks like a simple open-and-shut case to me.


Dr Tan is a doting grandfather, retired NIE lecturer, avid stamp collector, author and more, all rolled into one. He is the reason why I am one of the co-authors of this book.

* - Dr Tan leaves it to the interpretation of readers as to whether the word "short" refers to the grandfather, the stories, or both.

You can read more of Dr Tan's very interesting anecdotes here.

25 September 2007

Mooncakes And An Old Hotel That Sold Them

My younger son's school celebrated Mooncake Festival (also known as Mid-autumn Festival or Zhong Qiu Jie 中秋节) last Saturday night. The turnout was very good.

As usual, cute lanterns made by pupils were on display.

So were mooncakes.

And of course games too.

For this game, We were given riddles. We were required to guess a Chinese character from the clues given. There was this one (column 4, row 4, on grey-coloured paper in the above photo):

多说多错, 少说少错

Can you guess what's the Chinese character? Well, I couldn't. (The answer will be revealed on Sunday in comments to this post.)

As a kid, I played with traditional lanterns bought from the neighbourhood provision shop. A collapsible one like the one below cost about 10 cents only. It would come with a bamboo stick for you to hang the lantern from. To light up the lantern, you have to buy a box of 20 candles which cost maybe another 20 cents.

My mum sometimes rewarded me by buying a more expensive and beautiful lantern such as these:

These traditional lanterns are still available in some shops today. They are made of cellophane paper, mostly of red, blue, green and yellow colours which are glued onto wire frames bent into shapes of goldfishes, dragons, aeroplanes, rugby balls, etc. They are then hand-painted to make them look very attractive.

Talking about mooncake festival, I remember an old hotel which sold mooncakes under its name in the 1960s. This could very well be the first local hotel that started selling mooncakes using a hotel's name. The hotel was called Queens Hotel or Huang Hou Jiu Lou (皇后酒楼). The hotel was probably demolished in the late 1980s.

The hotel was situated in a very good location, only a stone's throw away from the famous Raffles Hotel. It was located at the junction of Middle Road and Victoria Street, i.e. the new National Library site. I could see it from the balcony of my 4th-storey SIT flat in Cheng Yan Place.

Every year when Mooncake Festival approached, the facade of the hotel would be decked up with blinking lights. The front facade of the hotel had a panel for hotel advertisements. Just before Mooncake festival, the photo on the panel would be changed to one of a Chinese queen complete with traditional dress and headgear, holding a vertical banner proclaiming "Queens Mooncakes" or Huang Hou Yue Bing (皇后月饼).

Too bad, I don't have a photo of the front facade to show you. However, I can show you what the inside of the hotel looked like with photos by courtesy of the National Archives Of Singapore (NAS):

The reception. (Doesn't it look uncannily similar to the one in the British comedy, Fawlty Towers?) On the left of the photo is the cage lift. It actually looks more like a dog cage.

The cage lift. (It looks similar upside down. That is probably why NAS made the error in the watermark, haha.) It had a collapsible gate and was operated by a lift attendant. There were two sets of gates that needed to be opened and closed manually by the attendant before the lift could be operated. The outer set was fixed and is the one that you see in the above photo. The inner set was attached to the cage itself and moved up and down together with it. You had to be careful not to stick your hand through the gate when the lift was in motion or you could suffer grievous injury.

Air View Hotel in Peck Seah Street used to have a cage lift too. So did Public Service Commission's old office in the now Supreme Court building.

The so-called "night club and restaurant". Countless couples held their wedding dinners in this restaurant and shouted "yam seng" from this stage. (Note the formica table and chairs as well as the empty wooden crates on the stage which were used to hold beer and soft drink bottles.)

If throwing in a free hotel room was a common practice for couples who booked wedding banquets at the hotel then, the newly-wed couple would probably be given a room like this one:

Fortunately, it was not a common practice then. Otherwise, I don't think that a honeymoon night in a non-airconditioned room would have been very memorable for a newly-wed couple. Well, at least it had a wash basin, a functional dressing table and a ceiling fan.

Today is the Mooncake Festival. Have a fun mid-autumn, everyone.


1. In the last photo, you can see Bras Basah Complex in the left window.

2. Read Laokokok's very informative article on the Mooncake Festival.


As correctly pointed out by Anonymous today, the correct English name of the hotel should be Empress Hotel and not Queens Hotel. I have forgotten its English name and thought it was the latter. The surprising thing is that when I used "Queens Hotel" as a search string on NAS' Picture Archives, it threw up the 4 correct photos but classified under the wrong name "Queens Hotel". You can call that a comedy of errors. Obviously, it is another case of something lost in translation. Thanks to Anonymous for pointing out the mistake.

Using "Empress Hotel" as a search string, I found the following two NAS photos of the exterior of the building:

View from Victoria Street. Empress Hotel was a 5-storey building.

View from the opposite corner of the junction - the words "Empress Hotel" can be seen below the Chinese characters on the signboard. Just above the signboard was where the large mooncake advertisement of about 2-storey height would be displayed.

23 September 2007

First Time On A Cruise Ship (2)

At check-in, each passenger was issued with a personal access card. It was used as a "passport", room key and credit card, all rolled into one.

Our room was on the port (left) side. The carpet and doors in the long corridor leading to our room were red.

In contrast, the carpet and doors in the corridor on the starboard side were blue. Hence you were unlikely to make a wrong turn even when your were returning to your room drunk like a sailor.

Our room was not very spacious. Yet there were 4 single beds in it - 2 were along the walls opposite each other, 1 was mounted on the wall (can be folded against the wall), another was a sofa bed. I slept on the sofa bed which was not very comfortable. Had we taken a room with balcony, it would have been much more luxurious. However, there was no such option for us.

The toilet-cum-bathroom was only slightly bigger than those you see in an aircraft.

In fact, the feeling on board was quite like flying on an aircraft. Why, they even had a route map on one of the TV channels!

And just like on an aircraft, safety procedure was demonstrated separately by pretty crew members in different parts of the ships.

Dinner was served not long after boarding. We had a choice of 3 "inclusive" (meaning we didn't have to pay anything extra) restaurants - Pavilion Room (Chinese), Mediterranean Buffet (International) and Bella Vista (Chinese/Western). We had our first dinner at Bella Vista. It was a sumptuous 6-course meal - braised sea cucumber, steamed prawns, half-a-fish, kai lan vegetable, roasted pork with jellyfish and soup. (Since it was not a whole fish, we flipped it over and indeed the ship didn't capsize.)

The restaurants had very good ambience. You could get a seat by the window from where you could get a good view of the sea.

And if that is not romantic enough for you and you don't mind paying a little extra, you can even have serenading musicians to set the dining mood just right.

The ship set sail at about 9 pm. We were having supper at the Mediterranean Buffet on Deck 12 when we felt some tremor-like vibrations when the ship started sailing. We could see ripples in our glasses of water. However, we couldn't hear any engine noise. Other than the slight vibrations, the ship was very steady - we didn't feel any rolling of the ship in the waves at all. Even the vibrations went away after a while. We knew we were in the good hands of the captain and his crew.

A few hours after sailing, our handphones were no longer connected to our usual service providers. Sometimes, we were connected to Indonesian service providers while at other times, we got connected to Malaysian service providers.

At one point, we even thought that we had reached Great Britain!

Most of the time, we were connected to Navitas 1 network. (Navitas is a subsidiary brand of UK's Jersey Telecom Group Limited. That probably explains the "Welcome to G Britain" sms. Read this document about the installation of Navitas GSM-based services on board the SuperStar Virgo.) However, communication on the Navitas 1 network was not cheap. I made a 1-minute call to Singapore and was charged $2.39 while each outgoing SMS cost me $0.96.

We saw some celebrities on board the ship. Moses Lim was probably on board to review some of the restaurants' food.

You Ya (尤雅), the Taiwanese songstress who was as famous as the late Teresa Teng (邓丽君 or Deng Li Jun) in the late 70s and the 80s, performed two 45-minute concerts in the Lido auditorium. My wife and I watched the show. At $40 per head for the cheapest seats, the tickets were quite reasonably priced. Anyway, my wife I saved us some money by not watching the topless show which was priced at $20-$25 per ticket. Hmm... it's good that You Ya's concert was still worth more than the topless show. And she didn't have to show anything more than her voice which was still as good as ever.

The facilities on board the SuperStar Virgo were indeed very comprehensive. If the ship was a star in the Asian movie industry instead of the Asian cruise business, it would definitely have won multiple Golden Horse awards.

My third and final entry on the cruise will cover the facilities on board the ship.

(To be continued.)

16 September 2007

Some Unusual Sights At East Coast Park (2)

This morning while cycling alone at East Coast Park, I saw an unusual sight on the beach. No, I didn't see a beached whale, a dugong or even a girl bathing on the beach.

First, I saw a discarded sandal near the beach:

Then some worship items:

And a large crowd:

"Oh no! Not another drowning incident!", I thought to myself and feared the worst.

But wait a minute. I heard some drum beats when I got nearer. They were happy and lively beats:

I looked towards the sea and saw this scene:

When I finally realised what was happening, I heaved a sigh of relief. It was actually an immersion ceremony for the statue of Lord Ganesha. It was part of the Hindu celebrations for the Ganesh Festival (also called Ganesh Chaturthi or Vinayaka Chaturthi).

At the end of the ceremony, the priest handed each devotee some whitish flour-like substance. I guess it was meant as a blessing.

I spoke to one of the devotees. He told me that this was the first time that such a ceremony was held in Singapore. After hearing that, I felt so fortunate to have witnessed the event.

This must have been the lorry that transported the Lord Ganesha statue and some of the devotees:

An event banner displayed nearby:

Too bad, I don't understand a word on the banner. Maybe Shilpa can help me out? Also, does anyone know what was the white stuff which the priest handed out at the end of the ceremony? Was it a mixture of flour and grated coconut?

Just in case you think that I am totally ignorant of Indian culture, here's a quiz question for you - what is the bow-like thing carried by the man in the photo of drummers?

08 September 2007

First Time On A Cruise Ship (1)

Our forefathers probably came to Singapore from China as human cargo in the hold of a ship. You could see the pathetic condition of a cargo hold from the following video-grab of a 1984 local TV series, Wu4 Shuo3 Nan2 Yang2 (雾锁南洋):

Unlike our forefathers, my family has never taken a trip on board a ship. So for the experience, I paid $1630 for four of us to go on a cruise-to-nowhere from 10-12 Aug 2007 on board the luxurious SuperStar Virgo. At 76,800 gross tonnage and 268m length, the Virgo is the largest ship in the Star Cruises' fleet. It has 13 decks and 980 cabins which can carry 2,000 passengers. From what I was told, it takes more than 1,200 staff of a dozen nationalities to keep the ship's operations running smoothly.

We boarded the ship at 5.30 pm on 10 Aug 2007. Embarkation at the Singapore Cruise Centre at the Harbourfront was a breeze as my wife had the foresight of pre-registering a day earlier.

Our cabin number was 5520 on Deck 5.

I was sort of relieved that it was above the waterline.

It was an "oceanview stateroom with window" on the portside of the ship.

(It is obvious that both my sons are avid fans of Walt Disney cartoons.)

Being someone who is quite observant, I noticed that on the entire ship, there were no cabin numbers with a figure "4" as any of its digits.

Notice the missing cabin numbers (marked by red arrows) 5502, 5514, 5524, 5004, 5014 and 5024 in the deck plan above. Also, cabin numbers on the portside run from 5500 to 5610 (with no numbers beginning with 554) while those on the starboard side run from 5000 to 5100 (with no numbers beginning with 504). It looks like a deliberate attempt to avoid the number 4 at all costs. I can only think of superstition as the reason for such a weird numbering system. (The figure 4 when pronounced in Cantonese sounds like 死 or "die".) Yet surprisingly, there is a Deck 4 which houses the tendering area and the medical centre. Hmm... how then would you rate your chances of recovery should you ever have the misfortune of being cared for in the medical centre?

I also heard of this superstition - when you are sailing and eating a whole fish at a meal, never flip the fish over to get at the meat on the other side. Instead, always try to get to the meat from between the bones because if you flip the fish over, the ship may capsize!

(To be continued)

01 September 2007

The Martians Have Landed!

Recently petrol prices have sky-rocketed. It used to cost about S$1.10 per litre for 95-octane petrol not too long ago. Now it is about $1.70, an increase of more than 50%. The monthly petrol bill for my 1.6-litre Renault Scenic used to be just about $250. Now it is more $400. Together with rising electronic road pricing (ERP) charges expected from November this year, my car-related expenses have gone through the roof.

Everytime I fill up at a petrol station, I cannot but envy people who drive smaller cars than mine. (Actually, a 1.6-litre car is considered as a small car in most countries. However in Singapore, it is considered as a medium car, possibly because of the relatively tiny size of our island.) Besides paying less for petrol, small car owners also spend less on road tax and maintenance. Small and micro-compact cars are therefore very popular in Singapore, especially in recent years.

Do not be mistaken, compact cars are not invented only recently.

I have seen early micro-compact cars on Singapore roads even in the 1960s when I was a kid. One example is the very cute Isetta:

One of the models had a 236 cc two-stroke engine and was meant to transport two persons. In comparison, some motorcycles today have far more powerful engines.

Perhaps the most unique feature of this car was that the only door it had was at the front. You open it very much like opening a refrigerator door. That is probably because the car was designed by Milan-based refrigerator manufacturer Rennzo Rivolta of Isotherm in 1953. However, you will probably not scoff at this little strange car if you know that it was once also manufactured by BMW.

Besides the Isetta, a common mini car in the olden days was the Fiat 600. This car had a 600 cc engine. There was also an earlier 500 cc model called the Fiat 500. The engine was located behind the car. In the second photo below, you can see ventilation slit-holes at the back which helped keep the engine from over heating.

But of course, an even more common compact car then was the Mini which also happened to be my first car. It was green. I don't mean only its colour but it was very economical with fuel and hence it was very environmentally-friendly as well:

In recent years, micro-compact cars have made a strong comeback, probably because of the reasons mentioned in the first two paragraphs of this article. Below are examples of modern compact cars which we see on our roads nowadays:

Germany's Smart Fortwo

The Smart Fortwo even spawned a "copy model" called from China (who else?) called "Noble", manufactured by Shuanghuan:

Can you spot the differences? Of course China does have original products as well - the Cherry QQ:

Japan finds it hard to take a backseat. (This is understandable because some micro-compact cars have NO backseat, haha.) Japan has the Mitsubishi "i":

And Subaru R1 (first photo) and R2:

As well as the Daihatsu Mira or Cuore as it is known here:

And of course, our very friendly neighbour does not want to be left behind as well. It has the Perodua Kelisa:

(Incidentally, the Perodua Kelisa was declared the worst car in the world by Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson.)

Two weeks ago, I even saw a model I couldn't identify. It had a registration plate starting with "SFB" (which I have blackened out in the photo):

It looked like a vehicle from Mars, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it was going so fast along Upper Thomson Road towards the city that I could not keep up with it. Hence, I can't confirm if it was indeed a little green man driving the little green orange car.

Can any of you can identify it?