Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Sentosa Island

Island Resort for the Singapore Islanders

overcast 30 °C
We took Andy to Sentosa Island today. Like Johor Bahru that we visited yesterday, we also haven't been to Sentosa Island, despite living here for more than 6 months. This is usually what happens. When you're a tourist visiting Singapore for the first time, Sentosa Island is probably one of the destinations on your itinerary. This is especially true as Singapore isn't a sightseeing paradise. But when you live in Singapore, you no longer see yourself as tourist and so don't go to these touristy places until some body from overseas visit you. And so we take this opportunity to see the touristy parts of Singapore (the way Ishmael in "Moby Dick" wants to see the watery parts of the world).

Actually a country lacks tourist sights aren't a bad thing at all. Have you noticed that the most livable cities aren't usually the most visited cities? Take Perth, Australia, you haven't even heard of it, right? It's considered one of the most livable city in the world. What about Melbourne, Australia? You may have heard of it once or twice, is also voted as within the top 10 most livable city that ranks below Perth. As for Sydney, Australia, it's the most well known of these 3 Australian cities, and being voted the least livable of the 3 (but still within top 10).

Well known most visited cities like Paris, Rome, London, Shanghai, etc tends to fall within the 30th and 40th spots as the most livable cities in the world. Actually crime in Paris and Rome is terrible, just about everyone I know who had visited these places have stories to tell. Atta's dad was literally gang robbed by a bunch of kids in the French Metro. I was pick-pocketed in a bus in Rome by a housewife looking woman in her early 40's. In comparison, many parts of Asia is much safer, especially Singapore, and Bali, and even Pattaya is safer than Western Europe (at least for tourists). Perhaps, these European petty crimes targeted tourists because they're more vulnerable. Having said that locals in European city like Paris are actually more scare in the Metro at night than the ignorant tourists who thinks Europe is safe. While in Asia, crime rates are high in some cities because of the poverty, but in others, crime rates are low because penalties. Of course, there're cities in Asia where they have both high standard of living and heavy handed - some called barbaric, others zero tolerant - on crimes, the crime rates in these cities are very low indeed (I'm thinking Singapore and most of the Gulf States).

As Singapore isn't such a tourist magnet, it happens to rank just outside top 10 of the most livable cities in the world.

Please note that there are different surveys, and these cities are also ranked differently from year to year. I just chose one survey that suits my needs, and make my point (from the very popular The Economist's World's Most Livable Cities index in 2009). Having said that, I don't think too many people who have lived in cities like Sydney or Singapore would have argued that these cities aren't very livable despite their disagreement with this index.

Ok, it isn't really true that I haven't been to Sentosa Island. I had been there with Darren about 2.5 decades ago in one of our uni holiday break. We strolled down the island and saw a peacock on the road. We spotted some machine gun pillboxes. As usual, young Darren did some excited and exaggerated military photo poses with the plastic military dummies. The barren beach was devoid of people, convenient businesses, or activities of any kind. I remembered there were 2 sticks of palm trees. For a couple of Aussies who come from a country that's renown for beaches, this patch of sands looked pathetic. We took a dip anyway. There were nothing else to do, and we were feeling very hot. We could have done a skinny dip - a definite no no in Singapore - in broad day light and no body cared. We were the only people around. That was Sentosa Island then. 25 B.T. (Before Today).

It is quite difficult to imagine this piece of prime real estate can remain underdeveloped since. But this was situation in 2.5 decades ago where this island, like Singapore Island itself, was only begun to be developed. Today, Sentosa Island, like much of the rest of Singapore had seen some property development frenzies since my 1st memorable visit.

Sentosa Island is quite unrecognisable today (not nowadays, today, to me). Can't imagine the peacock still walking around here with all these tourist crowds from the surrounding countries. The pillboxes are still here, of course. The beach, well, is anything but empty. In fact, too busy for the eyes, and it's lining with restaurants and bars. Artificial islands were built in the water close to the beach. Shuttle rides take you between different spots on the beach, etc, etc, etc.

Sentosa is a prime prime real estate because it's an island with easy access and proximity to the city CBD. Today you can get to the island in just about any transportation imaginable from the bridge access with car and buses, light-rail to cable car. We bought a ticket package that included the Sentosa Express ride. We bought the ticket and boarded the ride in Vivo City, which is one of the large mall (large malls galore in Singapore).

Vivo City is one of Atta's fave malls for a few reasons. We took Andy for brunch in Kim Gary. Kim Gary is one of the many HK Cantonese food franchise that dotted across Singapore. This is one of the better one. HK food, and Cantonese food in general is quite popular in Singapore. As Cantonese[1] people make up only 15% of the Chinese population[2], most of the local restaurants and eateries sell Hokkien food as majority of Chinese in Singapore speak Hokkien. The popularity of HK franchise doesn't just come from its rarity, but because Cantonese food is simply much more sophisticated - being the capital city - than Hokkien cuisine.

Having said that, Cantonese cuisine, like other international cuisines, in Singapore aren't as authentic as those in Sydney. I hammered this point again and again in my previous entry "Quests for Authenticity". So the Cantonese food here is most likely to be cooked by locals - i.e. Hokkiens, and they taste it. But, many Cantonese and HK franchises hire Cantonese wait staff. In the case of this Kim Gary, I suspect even the kitchen staff are Cantonese. You will find far higher than 15% of Cantonese in these restaurants. Most of them, judging from their Cantonese accents and dialects, come from KL (as supposed to, say, HK). Their food passes Atta critical palette that runs in her family of restaurateurs. Just passable. She said. There're 2 other such HK franchises in Vivo City, but after the first taste tests, she haven't gave them the time of day for another look.

Kim Gary is one of the several restaurants that line the southern side of Vivo City, and you get the view of Sentosa across the narrow strait from the restaurant. The Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) is being near completion when Andy is here. We regularly checked its progress when we eat here. When completed, RWS will have a casino, Universal Studio, hotels, and retail shops.

Kim Gary architectural style is one of those typical HK Cantonese style with Western influence, which reflects its Cantonese and Western fusion food style. It represents the very quintessential Cantonese style of food culture in HK, and they're exported to all corners of Chinese community. There're quite a few trademarked setups in this types of HK franchise that you can instantly spot: booths, glasses that look like vases, fork and knife cutlery (instead of chopsticks), bewildering number of tick-it-yourself menu order forms, etc. You can also typically order a cup of hot coke with lemon (should try it if you haven't. It actually not as bad as it sounds), and a cup of tea and coffee combo (this is more of an acquired taste). These drinks are examples of the very uniquely HK's inventiveness with food.

Another place is a must-visit for us after Kim Gary, and that's our fave Aussie haunt Gloria Jean's. Singapore typically has more, lots more, coffee house brands - in fact brands in general - than Australia. I hammered this point out loud and clear in my previous entry "A Small Kingdom with Big Modern Shops". Despite the many more (American) coffee houses in Singapore, we missed our Gloria Jean's cuppa. The Yanks and Asian drink a weak cuppa coffee, while Aussies enjoy the stronger cup. This isn't at all surprising, before the invasion of US coffee chains like Starbucks, all the owner-operator coffee chops in Australia are run by Southern European, and they're partial for a strong of cup of coffee. So when the Aussie open a coffee chain to compete with the US giants, they make their coffee the way they accustom to - strong and bitter. We can order a double shots in Starbucks or Coffee Beans - we usually do and cost more - but we still prefer Gloria Jean's. Patriotic duty? Nah. Nostalgia? Maybe. Taste? You take the word right out of my mouth! And cheaper. What about this? Starbucks NEVER provide spoons for my cappuccino foam eating ritual. The good old Gloria Jean's does. Without the eating of the foam, what's the point of ordering cappuccino? I ask you! Get real!
[1]I like to make it clear what 'Cantonese' means in this blog (not just this entry). Some people - they're in the minority - use the word 'Cantonese' to mean things related to the province of Canton (or Guangdong in Pinyin). This seems to make sense. But to confuse the foreigners, thought not by design, majority of people use 'Cantonese' to mean the people or food from the capital city of Canton, not the province. The capital city of Guangdong is Guangzhou, and when I - and most people - use the word 'Cantonese', we refer to the food or people of Guangzhou, not Guangdong. Does it matter? It does. Different regions in Guangdong have their distinct cuisines, and Guangzhou (or Cantonese) cuisine is unique and the best in Guangdong province. This isn't surprising as it's the capital city.

[2] My own guesstimate from the Cantonese being spoke in the streets, Cantonese restaurants, etc. Most of the Cantonese come from Malaysia, especially KL where more Cantonese live there than the whole of Malaya Peninsula (again, I'm making educated guesses. But I think I'm right).

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Monday, 5 October 2009

Johor Bahru

Permanent 25 - 50% Discounts on Everything for Singaporeans

sunny 33 °C
When Andy said he was coming to Singapore for the Aussie long weekend on the NSW Labour Day, Atta and meself were scratching our heads to come up with a good itinerary for him. The task was made more challenging because he had been to Singapore before (albeit a good many years, but Singapore isn't China; nothing much had changed during that time maybe except for the cost of living).

So the easiest way out would be taking him out of Singapore, and into JB - the Singapore-Malaysia border town. Since we also haven't been there either - 2 birds with 1 stone (well, 3 birds if birds refers to people).

JB (Johor Bahru) may not look much, but it's Malaysia's 2nd biggest city only after KL (Kulua Lumpur).

We took a train to Woodlands (costs about $1.40 SGD from memory), because on the map, it's the closest station to JB. But one station before Woodlands at Marselling, the MTR's PA told us that we should get off there and took a bus if we wanted to cross the border.

And so we took a bus, got off at the Singapore check point, went through the custom (which took only a jiffy), and then re-joined the same bus to go to the Malaysian check point. Boy, the traffic between the two check points was in a gridlock, and it took about 35 mins what should've taken about 5 mins if there's no congestion that arose from the custom processing of motorists. The bridge that connects the two check points (also known as Malaysia-Singapore Second Link), was built to reduce traffic congestion. Well, looks like we need a second bridge, in addition to the existing 2 links (1 bridge, and 1 Causeway).

Most days in the second half of the year (Jun to Dec) in Singapore is cool and overcast to cloudy. As soon as we got to JB, the sky cleared up. It was as if Malaysia and Singapore has separate skies even if they separated by a very narrow strait.

JB is a fave destinations for Singaporean, going by the long immigration queues and the traffic jam. Since this is weekend and about 10:30AM, all these busy traffic were tourist traffic, not business (not a suits in sight). True is, JB is a popular weekend getaways for Singaporeans. Surely they're not here for the sightseeing, which we covered in less than a day, and on Andy's insistence we covered most of the places on foot.

So what was the attractions? Surely this popular place for shopping for contraband like chewing gums and pirated movies can't account for all the huge traffic that keep these two links in such a chockablock? Well, Singaporeans have 2 passions that Atta shares: shopping and eating out. And what Singaporeans love more than these 2 things are doing them on the cheap. Who doesn't like a discount?

The taxi's flag fall/drop in JB is $3.2, which is identical to Singapore. Except that they're quoted in their own currency. 1 SGD = 2.3 MYR. So the cab-fare in JB Malaysia is less than half of that in Singapore. But not everything is such a steep discount to Singapore. Taxi is labour intensive, and the petrol in Malaysia is much cheaper as it's an oil producing nation. Most of everything is prized similar to HK, which is about 25 to 50% lower than that of Singapore on a currency conversion basis.
If you intend to spend the weekend in Singapore, you save a bundle by going across the border that costs about $5 SGD by public transport. Say, you do some shopping=$100, have a decent lunch=$10, get a haircut, then go to a health spa (or get a haircut at a fancy day spa=$100), then finish off the day with a dinner=$15.

Total spending = 100+10+100+15 = $225
Average discount of 30% = 225 *0.3 = $67.5
Your net saving = $67.5 - $5 = $62.5.

JB might as well stand for 'Just Bargains' for Singaporeans. We would make this a more regular weekend visits from now on.

Footnote: Atta bought 5 bottles of chewing gums (she can't live without chewing gum after a meal. It's part of her dental hygiene routine. I prefer flosses). The 5 boxes of chewing gum in her bag went thru a X-Ray scanner, it wasn't picked up by the operator. Or maybe they simply didn't bother with such a small quantity. The worse thing can happen is that they will keep your gums. There's no penalty. the government isn't making a fuss over it. They do, however take a dimmer view about capsicum or peppered spray, which they're taking more seriously with multiple warnings posted in many places on the walls of the custom area. Because unlike countries like USA where carrying sprays are good idea for women in some cities because of the crime wave. But in Singapore these things are considered offensive weapons rather than defencive devices because public sexual crimes are unheard of in Singapore.