LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pigs! Oink! Oink!

I asked for a lot of storage space at the new house for it seemed that every cupboard and drawer in our penthouse are full to the brim. Everyone is allocated storage and everyone seems to collect enough THINGS that belongings are strewn on the floor. When I buy storage boxes to store away the THINGS, somehow there are still THINGS on the floor. One would have thought my parquet was a Magic Parquet. It grows belongings with a fertility that I wish my garden had. And the store room was so full that things were in danger of toppling out.

I found a mound of little soap bits in one hidden corner of a bathroom, a collection made by someone who uses soap bars to bathe with. There was a drawer full of empty health supplement bottles. Somebody's room had a book entitled "How to Choose Secondary Schools". Old ring files with rusty clasps filled up another shelf. There were unrecognizable odds and ends of questionable provenance which someone said had sentimental value, and another claimed they could be used to make useful contraptions. Somehow Gentle Joy had stored away an old broom and a broken pail. And for the life of me, I cannot figure out why she keeps opened packets of flour and nuts (with a bit only left in each) at the BACK of the kitchen cupboard. Every single plastic spoon and plastic take away container was also squirreled away. Even Milo, I found, had his stash. He had somehow managed to store away little bits of his weekly knucklebone in the little space between the iron grille gate and the glass door.

I told somebody that when he/she gets old and lives alone, people would likely find his/her corpse in the middle of a room piled high with junk. And by the time the discovery would be made, he/she would be in advanced stages of decomposition. I made someone else cry when I threw away the broken market trolley. Someone had wanted to build something nice with the old wheels. I secretly got rid of the bottles of red wine from 3 years ago stored in less than ideal conditions. We opened a few last month and knew that many had turned to vinegar. Yet, The Husband would not let me throw. I threw them away today. The Husband will find out but by then it'll be quite the fait accompli. The mound of soap bits went down the chute much to the muffled consternation of the soap bar user. Milo looked at me reproachfully when I cleared his stash of knucklebone bits.

I last did this whirlwind of find and throw when the children were little. Back then, I found pieces of dried apple in The Daughter's underwear drawer. She had squirreled them deep under her underclothes to eat later.

Back then too, I had made myself unpopular with everyone. I offended every near and rather near relative. There were sulks and tears and for a long time, someone kept repeating that I should not have thrown away the present he/she had bought one of the kids even though the thing was broken and the kid no longer plays with it. Since then, one child assured me that he/she was quite capable of spring cleaning in his/her own room. I have for 8 years respected the karung guni ways of everyone else and refused to look at the growing mess. I wanted people to like me you see.

But I can't take it anymore.

Not one of those warm fuzzy feelings do I now give a hoot.
Much will be said when THINGS Petunia gives the boot.
Against every teary protest, I will stamp my foot.
For every reproachful look, I will an angry stare shoot.

Defenders of junk will sprawl where they would
Once Petunia has kicked them where she should
Petunia has endured as much as she could
And will ruthlessly clear the Lee Family loot!

I will do this every year. Get used to it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

X'mas Brunch Buffet at Halia




One of my favouritest restaurants is The Halia at The Botanic Gardens. Food is consistently of good quality and if you want al fresco dining, it is the best for miles around. The Halia sits in the middle of a garden maintained by NParks. It is an amazing place of verdant green, dappled sunlight, frisky squirrels and surprising splashes of purples, reds and blues that wink in and out of your gaze as the breeze shifts the leaves of the stately gingers.

And the food is good.

And the mood is good.

I booked us all a seat at the X'mas Buffet Brunch. There were many hits among the dishes and a few misses. I was so looking forward to the gravlax and the beef carpaccio, only to find them served at room temperature. A little bit of chill goes well with dishes like gravlax and beef carpaccio, I think.

The chicken miso soup was clear and flavourful. The Husband encouraged me 3 times to get at the seafood salad. I absolutely loved the artichoke and mushroom salad. The wagyu beef stew was heart stoppingly good - tender and flavourful. And the lamb chops just melted in the mouth, so tender they were. And the service was wonderful wonderful wonderful. Smiling, attentive and prompt.

We ate so much no one had space for dinner last night.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tropical X'mas Tree


When the children were little, we had a tiny little X'mas tree which The Husband called the mosquito tree because it was so spindly and rather bald, that it looked like a big mosquito. Then came the year when The Husband categorically refused to put up The Mosquito. He was fed up that I had ignored his wish for a big X'mas tree over so many years. So we went and bought a somewhat bigger X'mas tree. Somewhat.

I don't understand The Husband's fascination for big things. Big dogs. Big frangipani trees. Big X'mas trees. I wonder if he would have preferred to marry a big wife too.

This year, the topic of the X'mas tree was one that stimulated lively debate. Little Boy wanted a real one with pine needles. The last time I had that in my living room, I was living in France, and I did not have a nice time sweeping up the pine needles. Added to that, it really bothers me to be celebrating X'mas with a living being sitting in my living room that is slowly dying... "Because that is what real pine X'mas trees do." I said, "They die a slow and possibly agonising death in your living room whilst you eat drink and are merry."

I won that round. No live pine tree.

Then the whole family considered the fake tree sitting in its box. And The Husband predictably said that it was too small. Good grief... how big must his tree be?! I truly understood how big when The Husband smiled beatifically at the tree in Universal Studios. No way! He wanted real and he wanted big. And so he proposed to buy me a real tree to grow in the garden at the new house, which we can carry into the house at X'mas time.

The Husband won that round. I don't mind growing his conifer for him. Though I rather think that if it can be carried hither and thither, it can't be that big.

But well... we aren't at the new house yet so The Husband graciously conceded that we should find a temporary solution. Since everyone seemed to want a real tree, I proposed to decorate our new frangipani rooted cutting. So voilà... this year, we have a Tropical X'mas Tree.

So... The Daughter enlisted the help of The Male Friend who balanced the pot in the palm of his hand, waltzed down the stairs and deposited gently it downstairs by the window. And Little Boy decorated it with me. This custom is very important to Little Boy.

One year, I was too lazy to put up The Mosquito. Little Boy asked when X'mas was on 26th December 200X. And when he heard that X'mas was over he wailed long and loud "X'mas is over and it didn't even come!" To placate him, we drove all the way down to Bras Basah to get X'mas decorations and spray cans to make frosted glass. Everything was going for a 50% discount and Stingy Petunia seriously considered making it a habit to do post-hoc X'mas decorations every year.

A VERY MERRY X'MAS to ALL!!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Jiaozi Again

I made jiaozi again. I thought I had made them small. Even The Daughter confirmed that they were a nice size. Petite little things sitting prettily in the bowl dusted with flour. The Daughter even confirmed that I had rolled out the jiaozi skins as thin as 2-ply tissue paper.

I had visions of owning a thriving chain of jiaozi shops. I was gonna call my enterprise "Petunia's Jiaozi".

But quite inexplicably, the jiaozi grew in the water. They doubled in size and ended up looking rather large again. The skins too didn't stay thin. Oh good grief! How does one make jiaozi with delicate skins? They're supposed to look sweet and demure, smiling their dimples at our chomping teeth. Instead, they looked like fat nannies with over-sized breasts sprawled with vulgar invitation all over the plate. Even our teeth stopped in mid-chomp, and tried to jump out of our mouths in sheer terror.

I made so many of these vulgar nannies that we had enough for three meals. By the 3rd meal, the vulgar nannies had coalesced into a sodden mass of dough and meat. I had to pick up that many headed Hydra of a dumpling with both hands and it made a heavy splash as it fell screaming into the boiling water.

When it came out (double its size) we had to use a sharp knife to carve up its remains so that each of us would have our fair share. For some reason, everyone felt generous that day, offering each other the larger portions.

Little Boy with a little voice said, "Can we don't have dumplings anymore?" The Husband said looking sideways at me "Wah lau... good thing we don't have guests today!" The Daughter said "The filling is nice" but she was sure she couldn't finish her own portion.

But then... the filling WAS good.

Apple Pie Recipe

Here is the recipe for Petunia's Apple Pie.

Ingredients for Pastry
250g self-raising flour
250g plain flour
500g butter
1 egg
2 tablespoons white sugar
Some milk (ermmm... I kinda put enough to make a rather dry-ish dough)

(1) Mix 2 types of flour together in mixing bowl. Cut butter into small cubes and rub into the flour. Rub until flour resembles coarse sand. Add 2 tablespoons of sugar and mix well.
(2) Make a well. Crack egg into the middle and mix with a wooden spoon. Add enough milk to make a dry-ish dough.
(3) This dough cannot be rolled out. Put HALF the lump of dough into a tart pan and press it into shape.

Ingredients for Apple Filling
8 small apples cut into cubes
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
1ooml water
1 tablespoon plain flour
1 flat tablespoon white sugar
1 small pat of butter

(1) Dissolve sugar into 100ml water. Mix in 1 teaspoon of cinnamon powder and 1 tablespoon of plain flour.
(2) Microwave apples with 5 tablespoons of water, until soft. Melt the butter in a wok. Throw in the cooked apple. Stir fry briskly.
(3) Add water-cinnamon-sugar-flour solution. Stir fry till apple is coated with stickiness.


Assembly, Decoration and Baking
(1) Pour apple filling into tart pan on top of the dough you earlier pressed in.
(2) Break pieces off the other HALF lump. Roll between hands into long ropes. Lay these over the apple filling in criss-cross forming a sort of net.
(3) Bake at 175 Degrees Celsius for 30 to 40 minutes.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Al Fresco Jiaozi

We dropped by the construction site at about 5-ish in the evening one day and were surprised to see a familiar face atop an unfamiliar body. The face I could recognise, but the clothes were all wrong. He normally wears construction worker clothes. But he sauntered into the precinct in a spotless white shirt and well-fitting pants, carrying 2 bags of groceries.

It turned out that he was about to make jiaozi. A rickety table was pulled out under the blue sky. A chopping board that looked like a section of a plank was quickly rinsed and laid out. A small tupperware without its cover held water... then appeared a pair of bright pink plastic chopsticks and a big knife. He looked a little awkward and shy, because I was fascinated and staring.

I wondered if I should contain my curiosity and look away. But then, I really really REALLY wanted to learn how to make jiaozi, and I didn't much care that I was standing on a concrete slab under the blue sky, next to the steel skeleton of my household shelter. So, I plucked up my courage, caught hold of The Husband's hand, towed him over there, and asked brightly "May I watch you make jiaozi? I wanna learn."

And then he made magic before my eyes. Some flour, a little water. A few flicks of hand and wrist. The dough was ready. Chop chop chop, went the knife and the meat was all mixed up with Chinese cabbage, Chinese parsley, ginger, garlic and paprika. Salt ( a lot). Soy sauce (also a lot).

Then he got out a short end of a broom. It looked exactly like my small rolling pin. He rolled out the dough and then he showed me how to wrap it.

Voila.

They were perfect little jiaozi too. Quite unlike the leather stuffed pillows I made here. The next day, I returned him the favour with Petunia's Apple Pie which he promptly unmoulded onto a newspaper and shared with his friends. I was a little taken aback but I do admit that he did what I thought quite impossible. I've never thought it was possible to flip an apple pie over twice and have it remain intact.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reaching the Tipping Point for Chinese

In this round of end-of year exams, Little Boy scored 90 and above for every subject except Chinese, where he scored only 79. We are desperate. Little Boy went and asked the Girl Who Scored Full Marks for Chinese Compo her secret. She said, "I memorise tons of Chinese Compositions."

Okaaaaaaay! Whatever works eh? We're gonna lick this Chinese... and lick it good.

We went off to Beijing and brought home 4 compendiums of 1000 Chinese Compositions. There are the 2009 collections and the 2010 collections of China's best compositions from their PSLE-equivalent exams. At least, that is what I think they are. Whatever it is, the quality of writing is excellent and the compositions are a pleasure to read.

I can't read Chinese but I respond well to good quality language when it is read to me. These essays are beautiful. Full of music in the prose and so evocative in the images they conjure up. Grandma comes by every now and then, and reads the essays into a digital voice file on Little Boy's computer.

Armed with a glossary prepared by Grandma of all the difficult words in the composition (comprising both pronunciations and meanings), Little Boy memorises each essay in turn whilst listening to Grandma's recording. The aim is to expose Little Boy to a high volume of spoken and written Chinese prose. Each day, Little Boy encounters beautifully written Chinese words upon Chinese words... and once he has encountered enough of these words, we hope to reach a tipping point. The tipping point where he has enough vocabulary to pick up more vocabulary in the same way that a large snowball quickly picks up more snow as it rolls down the hill. We hope to reach a force of momentum. Once the tipping point is reached, we hope that Chinese will become as effortless as English has always been for Little Boy. Volume matters.

When he can recognise enough Chinese characters to read without hindrance, he will read more fluently... be able to guess meanings of expressions he does not know... and he will get greater enjoyment from the experience. I hope!!

I so hope!!

I cannot give Little Boy a Chinese speaking environment at home, but with modern technology, I can ensure he is immersed in high quality Chinese day in and day out. This is Chinese Boot Camp Petunia style.

Little Boy seems to enjoy the process. He feels good when he can manage to recite the text, and he feels superior to his Mom, when he can translate and help me understand the text that he has just recited. And since he has inherited my sensitivity to good language, he is also responding well to the high quality prose he is reciting.

When he began, he could only manage 3 sentences at a time. Now, he is faster. He can do 6 sentences at a time. We hope to stretch the envelope of possibilities. Maybe, the day will come when he can recite one whole essay at a time.

I hope this works. I do hope it works.

The psychological explanations for Potato Chinese™ works can be found here (build cognitive infrastructure) and here (transiting from reciting to writing). You can buy a set of Potato Chinese™ materials here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Disgruntled by The Disgruntled Chef

I was at The Disgruntled Chef twice in the past few months. After the first time, I vowed never to go back. But when the girls decided to go there, I kept my mouth shut because I didn't want to spoil the party. At the end of the evening, we unanimously decided it wasn't worth the money we paid. I was in 2 minds whether to blog about it but decided that it wasn't worth revisiting a somewhat blah experience. Then, this blogger wrote about it, and she felt exactly like I and my seven girlfriends.

The eight of us spent $60/= on water alone!! We were so busy talking that when approached with either sparkling or still, we absent-mindedly gestured one or the other. Each bottle of water is $12/=. I think it is done on purpose to pad up the profit margin, because the first time I went there with a friend, we had to tell the server THREE times that we didn't want bottled water at all. If they had asked a 4th time, we would have felt embarassed enough to accept their offer of $12/= per bottle of water. There is some undue pressure here. Something that says "We're a classy place and people here drink bottled, not tap water."

But I didn't see any chandeliers. The setting is green and relaxing in Dempsey. You're there to talk and chill out. It isn't a diamonds and ballgown sort of place.... so $12/= for a bottle of water?! It's overpriced.

The portions were miserly. We each paid $48 and then went to PS Cafe for big seconds. The plates were heavy (stone slabs) and when you're supposed to share the "small eats" you end up passing blocks of granite up and down the long rectangular table. If it's for sharing, the Chinese way is great - a round table. Else, don't make the plates so heavy... or, don't construct a sharing menu.

The quality of the food was excellent though but it feels awful to order bone marrow only to have a large piece of bone arrive on a large stone slab with fully 1 teaspoon of marrow to eat. Unless dogs are allowed, I don't see the point of that large bone. I ate that the first time. My friend had half a teaspoon of marrow smeared on toast. Me, I had the same. Then we amused our mouths with the other pieces of toast.

This place has settled on a great way to make money. Present small portions of excellent food on large plates... charge the prices of normal portions of good food on normal plates... within an unpretentious ambience... get guests to share. Unwittingly, people will order more dishes because when you share, you keep on ordering when you realise your friends have not had enough.

People end up paying the prices of a meal at a vastly more pretentious place than here. Of course, there is the part about getting people to drink bottled water like in a top class French restaurant with chandeliers and gold leaf chocolate.

Smart strategy, but I don't like being inveigled. If I want to pay Jaan prices, I make a decision to go to a Jaan or equivalent. I don't wanna go somewhere laid back, amidst green and wood and lazy armchairs... and then realise that I am in a Jaan-price place.

No... not nice. The eight of us swore that we would not go back. And the food isn't unforgettably good either. I didn't develop an instant addiction like I sometimes do with food. See post here.

House Construction 9: Milk Foam Nozzle for Concrete




I like to watch baristas at work at Coffee Bean. They stand behind the counter and pull out all sorts of tubes and nozzles to concoct milk foam and other stuff that's good to drink.

Now, imagine a 3 storey high contraption on wheels with a steel arm that reaches over the fence and gate all the way from the road to the back of a longish piece of land. The steel arm holds a nozzle that dispenses concrete mix straight into the formworks (i.e., the wooden planks all nailed together to form a mould for the concrete mix).

I've never seen any machine this large. We went off on an early and short vacation in order to be around to supervise the house construction. We still feel like we're on holiday though... because so many interesting things have been happening to the house and every day holds new learning and fresh insights into the building process.

The concrete was mixed by specialists instead of on site. The clerk of works was present to examine the quality and strength of the concrete mix. It was interesting to see them do the slump test. Too much water in the concrete mix is not good (because when water dries, the concrete will crack from water evaporation). Too little water in the concrete mix is also not good (because then it's not easy to apply - I think). The concrete specialists provided a document that gave the tolerance envelope for the slump test. Ours envelope was between 75mm to 105mm. Our slump test came up to be 80mm. See picture below.


80mm shows that the concrete was on the dry side (the lesser the slump, the more viscous the mixture), but since it was still liquid enough to work on, the cement mixer poured the whole truckload into the huge 3-storey concrete nozzle machine. Out the nozzle end (guided by one tiny human) came the gray concrete into the humongous wooden mould. Tiny humans waded into the mix to level it properly into the mould.

And voila... the entire slab that will be our 1st storey floor is done. Now, we wait for it to harden like a plate of agar agar.

By the way, I also learnt that it isn't good for concrete to dry too fast. One is supposed to spray it with water during the "curing" (i.e., drying process) so that it takes 28 days to dry out. That way, it reaches its maximum strength. Hence, some slight rain is actually good when one is building one's house.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

House Construction 8: Why is My House So Small?

Just before the steel bars are placed onto the foundations in preparation for pouring the concrete (that will form the 1st storey floor slab), I could see the outlines of each room on the floor of my house. Here... is the kitchen. Over there... the living.

We wandered in there and were dismayed. Why was each room so small?! I was POSITIVE that Mr Grizzly had made a mistake. We have a land area of 3600sq ft. Why does my kichen look so small... how am I gonna put a table in this dining room... and my poor children, they now have to downgrade to cells!! I was ready to cry... and couldn't sleep a wink that night.

The Husband woke up the next day bright and early, brought his parents over to the new house... tried to convince them that they would be moving into a hovel that is their half of the house. Nothing doing!! The old folks have been looking forward to moving in with us for 2 decades. Nothing would make them change their minds. Move in they will even if it meant jettisoning all their belongings.

It was heart-rending to see the old folks assure us that they had been jettisoning stuff in the past 6 months, and that they were totally prepared to downgrade to smaller living quarters and that if we hadn't invited them to move in with us, they would have sold their 5-room to buy a smaller 3-room. Neither of us could bring ourselves to tell them that the invitation was withdrawn.

Desperate to understand why the house felt so small, I scooted over with plans and tape measure and measured every wall. Nope! There was no mistake. Mr Grizzly had done a good job... and he was too gentlemanly to gloat whilst I proved myself wrong. It turned out that our perceptions were grossly inaccurate. Not till I measured the contours of a single bed in The Daughter's bedroom outline did I realize that the bed looked even smaller.... and that The Daughter's room isn't small at all.

Nothing is smaller than what we are experiencing at our penthouse. Everything is larger.

Certainly though, our living and dining rooms are not as large as what one would normally experience in a semi-detached house (they're about penthouse sized) ... but that is something to be expected since we have decided to give 4-room HDB flat worth of space to the old folks for their own self-sufficient apartment with kitchenette. It makes them happy, and that is a small price to pay for family harmony.

This said, I veto-ed every attempt to open doorways and moveable walls from their space to mine. That is the small price the old folks have to pay for family harmony too, for I would surely turn into an evil daughter-in-law if my space were not protected.

Phew!!

House Construction 7: Water Proofing the 1st Storey Floor


My architect had chosen "basement style" waterproofing for my 1st storey floor. First, a thin layer of concrete is laid down. Then, a black sticky substance is painted on top in 2 layers. This sticky substance hardens into a plastic membrane that keeps out water. Woe to you if you make holes in the dried membrane when you step all over it during house inspection. Third, another thin layer of concrete is laid down.

In between skype, sms-es, emails and people travelling... a miscommunication happened between architect and builder. Mr Grizzly did not lay down the 2nd thin layer of concrete and the workers proceeded to step all over the membrane in order to tie in position steel bars a few inches above the membrane. See picture above. Step here step there. These steel bars are the reinforcements for the concrete that will form the floor of our house. Now, imagine that if there were holes in your membrane and dampness rises into your concrete floor. What happens?

The steel bars that hold up your floor will rust and corrode.

This is not desirable because it does not make for a lasting house. Ideally, there should be Concrete Layer A (thin layer), then membrane, then Concrete Layer B (thin layer)... and ONLY THEN the concrete floor slab with steel bars inside. The 2 thin layers of concrete will protect the membrane from tearing as workers step all over it to lay the steel bars.

Well... in the end, because the membrane had been compromised, it was decided to use Waterproof Concrete to cast the 1st storey floor slab. Now... even here, not all Waterproof Concrete are same. There are those that come in powder form and mixed on site. The builder will apply it himself. Such types do not come with warranty. Next, there are those that come in a huge cement truck with trained specialist applicators. These come with a 10 year warranty.
Mr Grizzly gave me the type with warranty.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Bling Bling


Jewelry isn't my thing. The few pieces of diamonds from my wedding trousseau are hardly ever worn. Partly because however I manage it, diamonds don't really go well with pyjamas nor tatty t-shirts and shorts... which is de rigueur when you work from home.

But the jewelry that Sinfonia makes is so fun. They're not made with precious stones but they're attractive and have a sense of humour. The Daughter walked into my bedroom this morning and purloined Button Heaven for herself, and I almost wore Peach Mirage to go inspect the construction of the new house... but I wasn't sure what the workers would think of me, so I went in tatties and slippers instead. I put on Charlotte's Web to teach a class last month and I felt cheeky the whole time I was talking. I also like Pearl Medley and Glam Jane very much.

I'm not sure which is more fun. Wearing tongue-in-cheek jewelry made with a touch of class, or making tongue-in-cheek jewelry with a touch of class. I rather think making them is more fun, and selling them for money is even more fun. But since I'm all thumbs and can't do much else really well except write, I'm happy to have found Petunia's Purveyor of Pretty Pieces at Sinfonia.

I did find a lovely piece at the airport en route to Beijing too. Its called Madame Papillon. And here it is below.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sex Education

I asked Little Boy at lunch today (as he was wolfing down a delicious bowl of ramen) - "Do you know how people have sex?"

He looked at me with a bunch of noodles half hanging out and mumbled - "Mom, I am eating."

But I persisted. The Daughter went through Mommy's Sex Education module at 8 years old. I had almost forgotten about Little Boy... and since we're in the middle of the school holidays and Little Boy is 10 years old, it is as good a time as any.

So, I explained sex to Little Boy. I find that it's easier to explain the birds and the bees to children before they actually reach puberty. Nothing is happening inside their bodies yet. They are not yet puzzled and afraid of the things that happen every month, or that go whoosh in the night. It's all still theoretical. It's all thinking... not yet feeling. One can explain the mechanics of sex very properly with the help of a picture book from the library.

And since they aren't yet at the age to question authority nor practise over independent thinking, it is also easier to get them to accept and understand the social conventions that surround the sexual act - marriage, childcare responsibilities, family responsibilities, partner fidelity...

And in the same way that babies can accept that their Grandma lives inside the phone receiver (because Grandma's voice comes out from there), an 8 year old doesn't really question how the man's "ahem" gets into the woman's "baby bag". That's just the theoretical science of it. There aren't any ooohs or aaahs or ewwwwws.

I really do want to be the one to teach my children about sex. Because if someone else (or the internet) teaches them, I'm not sure they will explain the social responsibilities of the sexual act at all... or in a manner acceptable to me. The Daughter could well learn that one should try out a few partners before settling on the best. Little Boy could learn that it's ok to love 'em and leave 'em.

From sex, one naturally progresses to talking about dating and about marriage. The Daughter learnt early on that a woman has a shelf life. It doesn't make sense to waste time in relationships that will lead nowhere. Unless one sees a possible future with someone, just stop it there and then. Of course, the possible future may not materialise, but that's better than knowing that nothing will materialise and waste time. It takes time to build an understanding. For 2 trees to graft together into a single strong unit, it takes years. And when a break up happens, time is wasted and people get hurt.

I once sat down to lunch with a male friend who shared that he and his brothers all have steady girlfriends (for many years) but none wish to commit to marriage. In my head, I was quietly disapproving. Why should you be wasting the girls' time? If you aren't willing to commit, let them go so that they can find partners who will commit.

I went so far as to point out men our family knew whom I thought good husbands and boyfriends... and other men whom I thought poor husbands and boyfriends. All this was done because I feared... I so feared that she would choose poorly. Anyway, I have done my best. If she still makes a stupid choice, I know I tried my best to protect her.

What did Little Boy learn? He was told "Don't go around having sex with girls any old how yeah? You don't wanna get trapped into marrying someone who won't make a good spouse. Besides, later when we go home, Mommy will share with you close-ups of all the awful bugs that cause venereal disease. We will also learn the types of pain and death caused by each."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Robot Cleaners

The new house will be huge (by the standards of one who needs to keep it clean)... and I don't know if the helper can manage. Of course, if someone else keeps it clean, then it's a rather small house. One can always get two helpers but gee... it isn't a very cost effective solution, and offends my sense of frugality. And after two long-time helpers fell in love (each with a few men) and one helper's paramours came to blows whilst the other eloped with hers to Batam, I have a sense of foreboding every time a new helper joins the family. Will it happen again?

I find it hard to forbid another woman from starting a fruitful relationship (after all, every woman has a right to fall in love and marry a good man), and they take that as license to flirt and play the field... and then really nice girls turn into harridans. They are on the phone the whole day. They yell at the children and say spiteful things to them. And they sulk for the smallest things. I wonder what the girls' families think of me... that under my employ, their innocent girls have become corrupt.

Two helpers might not get along... and if they each have a string of boyfriends, it'll be double the trouble... and single trouble was already bad enough when I had to go to the police station twice because of my helper and her paramours.

So, I've been looking into robot vacuums. Of course, these come in many brands... some of which seem to be quite stupid and not to be trusted alone. They get stuck, turn themselves off and one has to rescue it every 5 minutes. Others seem to require a great deal of cleaning and technical maintenance because after the robot has cleaned, you gotta clean the robot. And cleaning the robot takes as much time as vacuuming the room yourself.

But there are one or two promising brands. I must say that the idea of having 4 robots work simultaneously in different parts of the house is an enticing one. I could do away with a helper altogether if the floors are taken care of... a dishwasher is installed... a dryer... and a steam mop. Oven cooking is not messy. Soups are no sweat with the thermal pot... and if one has no time to cook, a raw food diet has been touted as a very healthy lifestyle choice.

So we've decided to experiment with these robots. We first get one in place of the second helper. I think our helper will be thrilled. The steam mop will save her all the scrubbing... and protect her hands because steam cleaning disinfects without chemicals. The robot vacuum will clean all the upstairs on a daily basis. She'll only have half a house to clean... plus water the plants. And if she gets herself a string of boyfriends, I'll simply send her home and buy 3 more robots.

So far, I think the Neato and the iClebo are good. I'm wondering if the Japanese have good floor cleaning robots since Japan is well known for being at the cutting edge of robotics. And if any blog reader has any thoughts or suggestions, I would be so pleased.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mommy's Helper

I love to bring Little Boy grocery shopping. He helps me carry stuff. Even when he was in kindergarten, he would rush to pick up the grocery bags... and he would insist to carry the heavier ones. I never understood why because he was short and he was not strong, and he went to heroic efforts half dragging and half carrying the plastic bag all the way to the car.

One had to be quick to ensure that he got hold of a bag that was rather heavy, not too heavy, and didn't contain breakables nor fruits. Over time, I learnt to mentally set aside a group of items that I would contrive to put into the same bag in order that Little Mr Macho Boy could carry it for me.

When he got older (and stronger) and I got older (and developed back problems), it became convenient for me to have him along because he was really able to manage one or two heavy bags. I thought it was a real blessing to have a son like that.

Today, we picked up a wooden towel rack. As I paid up, he moved quickly to pick up the rack and carried it to the car. The sales lady was impressed. She praised him for his helpfulness. The rack wouldn't fit into the car, and then Little Boy said "Mom, it's quite easy to assemble this thing you know. Why don't we take it apart and then put it back again when we reach home."

I wasn't too sure. I dislike all manner of handicraft and DIY (unless of course, I get to eat the DIY). The sales lady was keen to make a sale. She looked at Little Boy and said "This is easy to put together. I can give you a new box of it with screws and an Allen key. He can have some fun."

Hmmmm... that woman knows little boys alright. My Little Boy was only too happy to agree... and so I bought the towel rack in a flat packed box à la Ikea. And then, the sales lady yelled at us as we walked away, "He's handsome too, your boy! All the girls will be falling over himself to get at him!"

I looked at Little Boy's face. There was no expression on it. I poked his ribs with my finger and said "Haaaaaandsome.... eh?" And then Little Boy's face and ears turned a deep red. Oh dear! I am such a meanie... and after he helped me carry stuff too!!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

63 Ganmian Hutong, Beijing




Here are the steamed "jiaozi" we had in Beijing at No 63 Ganmian Hutong. I've never had any like them before. There were 3 of us and we stuffed ourselves to the brim with these for only SGD$4. No... not SGD$4 per person... SGD$4 for 3 people. Ok... I don't eat much but Little Boy sure does and he sure ate, and ate, and ate.

It's a tiny shop hardly 3m by 4m in size, with tiny tables arranged wherever there was space. The kitchen was kinda blackish with long years of grime and a quiet and friendly couple do everything.

The "jiaozi" were just the right size, and the filling was juicy and soft without being mushy. The skin was al dente. The whole thing came straight from the steamer, piping hot. You dip the whole envelope into black vinegar and put it into your mouth. I am quite sure your tongue will kowtow to you 9 times in gratitude for the experience.

I was so inspired by these dumplings that I made my own. They looked simple enough. Minced and seasoned pork... dough skin... What can go wrong?

Well... for one, I thought bigger was better so my dumplings were rather large. The Daughter commented that it felt like eating pillows. Next, I thought very al dente was better so my dumplings had very thick skins. The Husband commented that it was like chewing leather. Little Boy dispensed with all that and went for the minced pork inside, which for some reason, was kinda hard and lumpy.

What was worse was that I served them to guests. The Daughter's friends had come by for day on a rare visit. They'd all been regaled by The Daughter's accounts of Petunia's Kitchen Prowess and were looking forward to a good meal. Unfortunately, I made them eat meat-stuffed leather pillows, and so The Daughter sulkily advised that one should not feed experiments to guests.

Hearing this, The Husband said "When it's my friends, you cook your tried and tested recipes ok?"

Monday, November 22, 2010

House Construction 6: Drops All Over the House

Did you ever notice the 50mm drop down into the bathroom or the kitchen? Mr Grizzly told me that I had to decide how the drops all over the house ought to be. Then a light went on in my head. One certainly cannot have the toilet on the same level as bedroom or living room, else my toes would get wet as I sip my tea whilst Little Boy pretends he is Noah with his ark, in the bathroom.

Well... it turns out that these are important decisions to take before the house foundation can be laid. Since we're somewhere up in the North of Singapore, the soil quality is rather good enough that we are laying footings and not micro piles. Holes are dug out in the red earth. Soil is compacted therein. And huge slabs of concrete are poured out and cast right in the holes. I think I have 11 slabs in all.

Next, trenches are dug from slab to slab and more reinforced concrete is poured out to form the underground beams. These beams connect up the footings, so a sort of concrete matrix is created underground to hold and anchor the house. The height of the beams and the kind of drops will be reflected already in the beams, because the beam needs to be cast lower where the floor drops down. Hence, it was already necessary to decide how much of a drop I wanted from dry to wet kitchen... from kitchen to toilet... from living to patio... From patio to car porch. Phew! So, for readers about to build a house, be warned. Building a house isn't just about great design. Since you're gonna be living in there, you will be the one stepping up and down everyday so you need to know your daily practical habits or risk getting irritated by your own house till kingdom come.

I went around looking for 50mm steps... 100mm steps... and 150mm steps. Then I stepped up and down and up and down until I knew the feeling. Then I listed out all the drops all over the house... imagining how I would move from room to room... inside to outside. We were all stumped by how high the 1st storey was to be above ground level. How to imagine something that isn't there?! Mr Grizzly is a trained civil engineer. Not many contractors are, you know. Mr Grizzly took out his surveyor's instruments and when we found that the neighbour's living room floor was 300mm above ground level, it helped us to decide.

A word of advice though, for those of you who will be reconstructing... Make these decisions BEFORE your architect submits plans. Else, you may need to resubmit and that costs another $3000. This is because the URA is sticky about the maximum height of your house. Happily, I had enough unused roof space under the sloping roof such that by reducing the slope of my roof, I could raise floor of my 1st storey by 300mm without exceeding the house height previously submitted to URA.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Steel Magnolia

There are 8 of us. Our friendships span more than a quarter of a century. We've seen each other through boyfriends... through weddings... through births... through breast enhancements... botox..., meeting up every year to show off happy bits of our lives and seek sympathy for the unhappy bits.

When we met up last night, I could not help feeling a knot form and twist in my stomach when I heard what H was going through. Way back when, H was every teenage boy's dream girl. Even today, grown men who knew her then (now married to other women) reminisce starry-eyed of her famed beauty. Long black hair, large eyes, porcelain complexion... H looks like a China Doll and exudes an aura of vulnerability that makes others worry for her. Actually, she looks pretty much the same today.

But this is a woman who has 4 kids. After her husband's retrenchment, she struggles to make ends meet by running her own business... whilst breastfeeding one child, coaching another special needs child and tending to the other 2. I have to worry about Little Boy and I find that tough. I wonder how she manages 4 kids whilst also being the breadwinner. It's even more heartbreaking to see how she keeps her anguish to herself because she does not want to burden her husband unnecessarily. With all that she is doing, she wishes still to be her husband's emotional pillar.

Therefore, it is amazing that after thousands of years of human civilisation, people still think of women as the weaker sex. In post-war Singapore, how many women have had to bring up 5, 7 or 9 children single-handedly after the death of her husband? Thanks to wave after wave of retrenchment exercises, how many women are family breadwinners whilst still fulfilling the traditional roles of supportive wife and loving mother? How many women have to step up to take on the responsibilities of their men when the needs arises, whilst not relinquishing the responsibilities their men married her for?

Life is unpredictable. Men don't choose to die. Men don't choose to lose their jobs. And when a husband is out of action, from somewhere inside of her, the wife must find the resources to do everything and be everything. As years upon years of history flow past, generations after generations of genteel white magnolia flowers with fragrant and delicate petals become steel magnolias in the wake of earthquakes, of economic crises... and of wars. Everywhere in developing countries, micro-loans to women allow them to build businesses that feed children and grow the economy.

Are we weaker because we cry so easily? Are we weaker because we are physically smaller? Are we weaker because we don't compete for fame and glory? Are we weaker because we don't fight wars? Are we weaker because we look prettier? Are we weaker because we tend to find satisfaction from supporting our other halves?

Odd isn't it?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

You Know You're Old When...

You know you're old when The Daughter borrows your clothes and looks better in them than you do.

The Daughter found a holiday job in an office. She was told to observe the dress code. This means, no jeans... no cargo pants... no slippers... no t-shirts. And so, The Daughter has nothing to wear and came raiding my wardrobe for stuff to tide her over the next 4 weeks.

She has never been easy to dress. At 9 months, she had formed her own notions on which rompers were more comfortable. On shopping trips she had been known to toddle off in another direction when she spied me coming towards her with a pretty dress. Much time was spent trying to catch her and making her stay still whilst I searched for nice and festive wear (that were somewhat uncomfortable). She would wear the purchase only ONCE at Chinese New Year and never again. She spent much of her childhood in shorts and 'A' line skirts because she could never well tolerate wearing dresses that were tighter at the waist. In essence, for her, clothes must be there but feel like they aren't.

Clothes are chosen for tactile properties, not visual. And favourite t-shirts are still worn for comfort even if they look tatty. The second time The Husband ever scolded her was to tell her "You dress in a way that makes people think I cannot afford to dress you!!"

So, yesterday night, I felt like I had hit jackpot as she paraded in front of me in the various dresses I had accumulated over the years, but had outgrown. It was like playing Barbie doll (with a sulky Barbie... but better than no Barbie at all). With much rolling of eyes and complaining about low-cut this and too fat that and not my style and trying on clothes is tiring, she and I managed to construct a work wardrobe to last one month at work. She did irritate me enough at one point though, that I humphed and declared that SHE was borrowing MY clothes and if she complained anymore, I ain't lending.

But well, with a mother's biased judgment, I must say that my baby looks really really really pretty!!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Youths Need Purpose? No, They NeedED Love

In their book Freakonomics, Harvard researcher Steven D. Levitt and his journalist friend, Stephen J. Dubner argued that the massive drop in crime rates of the 1990s in USA can be attributed to a ruling passed in January 22 1972, allowing legalized abortion in the USA.

The authors write that "as far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal... Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion [are the] poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions [were difficult to get]. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of [the ruling supporting legalized abortion] these children weren't being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet".

Commenting on the recent gang fights, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan noted that if youths had a sense of purpose, they wouldn't get violent. The question is... "How does one inculcate a sense of purpose in youths?"

Lost youths without purpose in life are a product of a society where parents work all day and are never around. As the income gap grows, lower and middle income parents will need to work so much harder just to keep up. They have little capacity to save. Without adequate savings there is nothing to invest. Neither do they have time to invest in their children. Unless there are grandparents or uncles and aunties to fill the gap as mentors to the family's children, these children grow up untethered to any anchor... unloved... unsupported and afraid.

These children grow up in adverse circumstances. There is no one at home to comfort them when they are scared. There is no one to turn to when the world has been unkind. Indeed, their own parents, stressed out by their low-paying jobs, may often be the most unkind to their own children. To really get at the root cause of the gang fights, it isn't police effectiveness that should be questioned.

To understand why youths set upon youths with parangs in Singapore, one needs to turn the clock back 20 years and examine the gradual development (or lack thereof) of the children's relationships with their parents. We should be questioning an economy which devours work lives voraciously such that parents are never there when the little ones need them. And in this day, where ties to the extended family are so much weakened, children grow up without adequate parenting. Recent data shows that juvenile delinquents often come from relatively well off homes where BOTH parents work long hours. In the local context, adverse circumstances may not be a dearth of money resources, but a dearth of time resources.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's analysis lacks depth. He should push his analysis beyond "lack of purpose". Why do these youths lack purpose in their lives?In essence, when you find your purpose in life, you find something you deeply care about. If no one cared about you when you were small, it's hard not to be afraid... and lost. How to have a purpose in life when deep inside, you're still that frightened little boy? Frightened animals are violent animals. Fearful people are also quick to anger and violence.

It doesn't help that the educational syllabus in Singapore is so challenging that reasonably intelligent children minus parental kindness and emotional support, have little hope of succeeding. They don't do well in school because they lack access to family support that helps them cope with stress.

We waste talent that way. These kids grow up thinking they're dumb when they're not. And before life has started for them, they have scripted for themselves the role of failures in life. And when you think you're a failure, it's hard not to fullfill the prophecy... and to be tempted to take the lawless route in order to make a living.

Make it easier for parents to spend time with their children. Fix the work-life balance problem in Singapore. Fix the legislation so that men and women are truly equal (i.e., it's alright for men to pull childcare duty... and men can claim maintenance). Help Singaporeans be better parents.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

House Construction 5: Making A Dirty Video

A minor public sewer runs through our property. The PUB requires that a pre-condition video to be taken of the inside walls of the sewer. Any damage that pre-exists the construction of the new house will not be our accountability. It seemed quite straightforward at first. I thought someone would simply crawl into the sewer with a video cam and voilà... done!

But noooooooo... Life happens and life ain't simple. Not by a long shot. When the sewer was opened, an entire Singapore population (inclusive of foreigners and PRs) of cockroaches spilled over onto the floor in a black writhing mass before they regrouped and came rushing at me.

I ran.

Understandably, no human can crawl down there. A mobile remote controlled CCTV is put in instead. That looked quite simple still. What can't technology do these days eh?

But well... It turned out that it was absolutely necessary to open my neighbour's manhole to put in the camera. Due to some fate of layout design, my neighbour's manhole is found in her kitchen. The good woman gave my contractor a good piece of her mind. Poor Mr Grizzly Bear stood there uncomfortably and waved PUB's letter ineffectually at her. Instead of the intended effect of calming her, the letter waving made things worse. My neighbor thought he was threatening her with an official looking letter when all Mr Grizzly was trying to do was to assure her that he was not some robber trying to enter her house. The whole situation kind of went up in flames.

He was told, "You WILL not enter my house and let loose those cockroaches into my kitchen. How dare you peek over my back wall you lout!? How DARE you talk to my maid when I am not looking... you cur... you skirt chaser... you maniac!?" or some words to that effect.

"But... but... but Mrs Lee!" The Grizzly explained helplessly, waving his big paws at me. "Mrs Lee, she has no doorbell! The only way to get her attention is to wave at her over the garden wall... What did I do wrong?!"

It was hard to explain. I quite understood my neighbour's fears. I mean, no woman would take kindly to being peeked at over the garden wall, and no woman would embrace the thought of a few million cockroaches in her kitchen. But Mr Grizzly Bear was just doing his job and trying his best to be reassuring using a piece of paper with PUB's logo on it.

Nonetheless, when you look like a grizzly, even gentle growls of peace can be misconstrued. Between Mr Grizzly Bear and my neighbour there was a HUGE gender gap, and The Grizzly was deathly afraid of the damsel.

Eventually, one thing led to another and I ended up having cardamom flavoured milk tea (yummy) in my neighbour's kitchen. I had smoothed things over nicely. The damsel was no longer looking daggers at The Grizzly. The Grizzly was looking distinctly happier as he guided his workers through the process of sealing the manhole in such a way that not one cockroach would escape when the camera was put inside. He's a smart one, The Grizzly.

Things were looking good. But the camera team never arrived that day because the camera had chosen just then, to break down. I volunteered to send my antique video cam down but was told that with all the filth down in the sewer, my camera wouldn't survive the trip. Robust specialist cameras used to extreme environments were required. Hmmmph! I thought, "If those cameras were all that robust, why did it break down?"

I was more than a little sad and frustrated as I thanked my lovely neighbour for her tea and her hospitality. We were all too embarassed to importune the poor lady again... and there is only so much I can do to smooth things over. I should have invited her to tea instead for all that I was doing to her.

Happily, we found another neighbour (a man) with whom The Grizzly could chat man to man... and thus it was that we made our dirty video for the PUB.

Phew!!

Friday, November 12, 2010

House Construction 4: The Neighbours

The old house is entirely gone. Roof and walls and all. Not a trace left!! I arrived just in time to see a mangled mass of steel support being loaded onto a huge truck. I suppose the contractor can sell that back to steel recycling agents? I dunno. Anyway, neatly stacked in a corner were long, straight and thick steel rods to be used in the new construction.

Meanwhile, exciting things have been happening. The man-sized pneumatic jack hammer had broken up the old house into small bits for loading onto the truck and discarded. The next door neighbour with whom we share a wall, popped by to tell us that the heavy vibrations had made a small crack in her plasterboard. Our big and tall grizzly bear of a contractor said "No problem! We will fix that!"

Our neighbour was so sweet too. She said, "Why don't we wait a bit and see if any other cracks appear. You can then fix everything altogether." We had made a concerted effort earlier (the contractor and I) to keep on the good side of the neighbours. I had earlier dropped a letter with my mobile number in their letterboxes. And the contractor made an effort to be friendly and courteous, as well as considerate when hacking and drilling. He went over to inform the neighbours of exactly when he would be making a ruckus and he scheduled the demolition work tightly so that it could all be done quickly within 2 days. Nonetheless, the neighbour's dog was still so stressed that it spent 2 days behind a big flowerpot in the garden and refused to go into the house.

It was good that my Quantity Surveyor had ensured that the necessary insurance coverages had been effectuated. Proper insurance requires a pre-condition survey of the neighbours' houses. This way, it becomes very clear whether a neighbour's problem was pre-existing or not. The contractor has to make good any damage to the neighbours' houses at no extra cost. This should be stipulated in one's building contract. And if the damage is severe due to his best efforts, the insurance will cover the damage.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

John Ping: Driver


I was curious about whether Chinese people missed at all living in a democracy. So I asked John Ping, our driver, a rather tangential question. After all, I'm not sure if politics is at all a sensitive topic in China.

Me: Has there been any change in political system in China?
John: No, no... there has been no change and that is a very good thing, because when there is political revolution, life is not good.

John makes it his business to drive tourists out to the Great Wall of China, and other places in the outskirts. Much of what we wanted to visit was within reach by subway, and I quite enjoyed walking in the invigorating autumn cold. Plus, the subway costs 2 yuan flat no matter where you go. Getting to the Summer Palace costs three people 110 yuan but coming back to the hotel by subway costs 6 yuan for 3 people. And it is a very clean subway too compared to subways in London, Rome and Paris.

We hired John to get to 2 places: the Great Wall and Zhokoudian Village (where we viewed prehistoric caves and sabre-tooth tiger skeletons). We paid about 700 yuan for each 2-way trip. He charges 600 yuan, but we gave him a nice tip of 100 yuan for having been such a good host. You can find his contact details here.

Now, back to politics... frankly, most of the Chinese people don't care what political regime controls the country as long as they can make a decent living, and can move around safely. And the Chinese population is a generally happy one. Many have seen their standards of living and purchasing power increase over the past 2 decades. Many have been able to progress above the poverty line. People like John Ping (at 50 years of age) started life earning less than 100 yuan a month. Today, he owns a fleet of cars, employs freelance drivers and eats once in a while at expensive restaurants like Dadong. He dreams of expanding his business. His life holds hope for a better tomorrow.

When I spoke to the cross-eyed toilet cleaner and the retail assistant in the hotel, there was much the same sense of optimism. John told me that many are very poor in the rural areas of China but what I could see was that even the very poor in Beijing had fair hopes of a better tomorrow.

Consider also that the Beijing government charges only 2 yuan per pax for any distance travelled. Such a policy means that those who travel short distances subsidize others who travel long distances. This helps the poor.

You see, folks who live far from the city centre do so because they are poor and cannot afford accommodation close to the city centre. For such folks (too poor to stay close by) transport is a necessary expenditure that can take up a relatively larger percentage of earnings. And yet, it is poorer folks like these who MOST NEED to accumulate resources so that (according to conservation of resources theory) they can invest resources to protect themselves against resource loss and resource depletion (i.e., the poverty trap).

Unlike housing, transport is an essential that is not vulnerable to speculation, and people MUST travel to work. The Beijing government charges a 2 yuan flat rate for subway travel. This helps the very poor save money. What the Beijing government did with their subway system has clearly the interests of poor people in mind.

It is thus unseemly that we have lately restructured public transport fares to be "fairer" and that the elderly who use to enjoy subsidies now have to pay their fair share. This does not bode well for the income gap. It is thus ironic that in Singapore, we have become so enamoured of the Western values imbibed from USA (that every man shall be accountable for his own actions and life)... we forget that even the fingers of our hand come in different lengths, and that some fingers help out where others cannot do.

John Ping shared that in the last decade, crime rates have fallen. Travelling around the country is safer. Robberies have become less commonplace. Whilst the enterprising Chinese people will find more than one way to swindle... and creative swindling is fairly commonplace... violent crimes are not. It is thus ironic that youths wielding parangs are no longer afraid of the Singapore Police Force.

What happened to us? Where is the strong and stubborn government who thinks through carefully how to make life better for poor people, and cares not a jot about what the West says about no holds barred free speech... democracy... and all manner of strange ideologies that neither common Singaporeans nor the common Chinese care about? Generally people just want peace, wealth and family. Who cares whether a regime is fully democratic or communist or socialist? The test of the government is in the eyes of the poor. Is there hope? Are there opportunities? Or do I see myself get left behind as the country powers ahead?

House Construction 3: Sanitary Ware

The once a year Grohe sale came on. We mistakenly thought that IMM had the largest Grohe showroom put up by Asia Excel. We rushed over only to find that too many items were out of stock. For those who want to buy taps and such, go to Interior Affairs at 29 Tai Seng Avenue. It has 28,000 sq ft of European bathroom and kitchen display all decked out with Grohe and more Grohe.

Go there and drool.

The sales girl at Grohe - Asia Excel is not strong on product knowledge. She told us that Grohe products are not sent for PUB certification. The sales lady at Grohe - Interior Affairs knew the products very well, and was able to show us that Grohe products are PUB certified. For those of us reconstructing a house, PUB certification is important or your house won't pass inspection. It is important to get proof of certification too. Make sure you buy products that are at least one tick certified.

We asked the sales girl at Grohe - Asia Excel (where stocks of the Grohe sale had almost all run out)whether other shops might still have stocks of sale items. She was not at all forthcoming with information. I suppose she hoped that if we believed that stocks had run out all over Singapore, we would be motivated to buy her not-on-sale items. Whatever it was, we didn't take the bait. So, if you wanna buy Grohe, people at Grohe - Interior Affairs give vastly better service... have a wider range... and have a lot in stock.

It was also there that I had my moment of epiphany. I realised that space is the ultimate luxury. The idea that less is more can't come close to the idea that nothingness is actually the ultimate declaration of having arrived (not only in Beijing as I had noted in a previous post, but everywhere else in the world). If I become filthy rich one day, I will get me a bathroom with ultimate simplicity and wide expanses around my bathtub. And I will have a bathroom the size of a 2-room HDB flat. Yup! Filthy rich!


Anyway, we grabbed wash basin mixers, shower mixers and kitchen sink mixers for the whole house for unbelievable prices!! It does require some compromises when it comes to design. The latest designs are more expensive. Happily, I am a woman of no taste, and I like Grohe because I know it won't leak or fall apart over time. So I picked simple designs from yesteryear and carted them all home. And now I sit like a hen atop a mountain of chrome plated taps, clucking.

Then we went to three shops to choose toilet bowls, wash basins and heaters. I found it funny that we were choosing sanitary ware so early in the project, but it seems that this is necessary in order that the sanitary piping can be planned.

We had initially wanted to do apple to apple comparisons by picking out model numbers, and then going to another shop to compare. Except for Claytan toilet bowls, which everyone carries, the other brands are carried by different shops. When I picked house brand designs, it was absolutely impossible to find the same thing in another shop. No way to do apple to apple comparisons.

So we decided to proceed differently. We picked the designs we liked best in each shop and looked at the total sum quoted. We gave some weightage to how much we liked each of the sets picked. In the end, we found Poh Joo most pleasing to our tastes and its prices weren't too far off from what the other shops charged for their sets.

We did a right and proper analysis too... tabulated everything in an Excel spreadsheet and walked through the individual prices and each total... and we considered each individual design for it's sex appeal.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dadong Beijing Roast Duck


Eating at Dadong was a feast for eyes and palate. As you enter the restaurant, stately and elegant young women worthy of an emperor's harem line up in 2 rows to welcome you. They are beautiful. You can't help ogling... except that I caught one lady digging her nose as I turned my head from one row of beauties to admire the other row of beauties. These beauties don't serve you. Their job is to walk gracefully in front of you to show you to your table. Eye candy sashaying the guests from door to table.


A good looking young man brings the duck to a side table, and carves it like maestro right before your eyes. Every flick of the knife precise. Every movement with masculine grace.


Voilà the duck all cut up into slivers.This dish can be named "Pleasures of a Thousand Cuts".


Toasted sesame seed hollow cases.

Wraps

Condiments

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Beijing's 2 Faces

We were in Beijing this past week, staying at Park Plaza Wangfujing. The hotel is a 30 minute walk away from The Forbidden City and is right smack in the middle of a district that fairly glows with opalescent opulence.

There I was in my fleece sweater, blue jeans and Nike shoes staring goggle-eyed through the clear glass windows. I know shops like these exist along Orchard Road, but seriously... our shopfronts with their limited space lack the grandeur of these Beijing luxury stores. Space is a luxury that rich people in China can afford. And what took my breath away was not the gleaming Rolls Royce being appraised by 5 men and 2 women, but the amount of space around the car... and the height of the shopfront ceiling.

Whilst the poorest of the poor stay in a cubicle next to a public toilet hardly bigger in square footage than a Rolls Royce, the Rolls Royce sits in the middle of a huge white expanse large enough to strike one dumb and speechless.

I kid you not.

After some exploration, we found our way into the back alleys of Beijing - hutongs wide enough for a single car where families stay and raise their kids. It was here that I saw a woman cooking dinner at the entrance to an open door. Inside, in plain view, there was a bed, 2 young children and all their meagre belongings hanging from the walls. All of that was stuffed in a space hardly bigger than a Rolls Royce. Above the door was a sign - "Laundry Woman". An old woman so wrinkled and small, she looked like a cricket, sat in the failing light of the evening hawking scraps of paper with the word "dragon" on them.

The contrast in lifestyles was so stark within a distance of less than 500m, that you couldn't help but notice, especially since the Rolls Royce was on the street in front of the hotel and the laundry woman and cricket lady was on the street behind the hotel.

If we wanted Peking Duck at the best Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing (Dadong), we crossed the road in front of the hotel. It cost us about $120/= to feed 3 people to bursting. If we wanted steamed Beijing dumplings, we went out the back door and went a little ways down the alley. The steamed Beijing dumplings were the best I had ever eaten. It cost about $4/= to feed 3 people to bursting.

The steamed dumplings were so good that I developed serious cravings for them over the next few days. I also craved the Peking Duck. The Park Plaza Wangfujing Hotel was very well situated indeed because from there we could experience the 2 faces of Beijing.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Exam Stress

I didn't get it at first. When I picked him up from school, Little Boy was cheerful and happy that he had earned 40 cents of profit from selling something.

- "Did you have a good day?" I asked.
- "Yeah!" he said.

So I left him to his own devices. After all, there is so much to do at this stage of my life that I can't be ever watchful... ever vigilant... and ever ready. For efficiency and effectiveness, one learns to swoop in for a close look, and then swoop out when nothing seems the matter. And for sure, nothing seemed the matter when I checked on Little Boy at noon.

So I went and did other pressing stuff.

Over the course of the afternoon, Little Boy remarked about 3 times that he had never been so worried about exams before. The remarks brushed at the corners of my consciousness as I went about busy with other stuff. After all, in the week just before exams, Little Boy is not allowed to study. The rule is meant to ensure that he has enough rest and relaxation to be in top form for exams. So, "hmmmmm" was all I said.

Then as I prepared for bed, Little Boy came upstairs to insist "When you're done, please come and get me. I need you to cuddle me to sleep." And I said "hmmmmmm" again.

Then I forgot. Oh bad bad mother!!

Anyway, Little Boy found his way back into his old spot between Daddy and Mommy... a humongous piglet wiggling and snuffling... until all we could see were 2 eyes peeking out from under the quilt. He was a bit upset that I hadn't gone to get him, but I guess the important thing was that he was where he wanted to be - in that warm safe place between his Mommy and his Daddy.

And then it all came out. Teacher had given some Math worksheets to do which Little Boy couldn't do, and it was already the day before the Math exam. And before long, as Little Boy tossed and turned and wiggled into his Mommy's comforting embrace, he started to wail "I've neeeeeever not known *sniffle* how to do her worksheets befooooooooooooore" (which really isn't true). If such questions come *sob* out *sob sob* tomorrow, I will not do weeeeeeeeell". And then the tears came in huge drops.

Now he got my attention.... and his father's too.

We sat there and assured him that EVEN IF there were questions he didn't know how to do, then that's just too bad... that his job is to ensure that he obtained full marks for the questions he COULD do. And that if he gave in to his fear, he would certainly perform less well than he was truly able...

You know, it's really painful to see our little children experience the kind of stress that they should not experience until they're adult. And such stress is experienced even when the child is amply prepared and reasonably confident. It's a good thing for Little Boy that I am not a parent who will cane when results are poor... and that I am there (well sort of) when he needs to confide in someone.

What about the intelligent children who don't have such emotional support at home? What about those whose parents yell and scream? What about those whose parents work till late? What about those whose parents pay all they can afford for Tutors who teach the material, but fail to realise that knowing the material is only half what it takes to make it?

How do those little ones cope?

The Singapore Education system has become one wherein reasonable intelligence is no longer enough to get by. One needs access to high quality family support too. Our educational system has become a test of family unity and love, more than a test of student ability.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Of Grasshoppers and Pigeons

Many decades ago, when our Dads were growing up, Singapore was Little Boy Paradise. Our Dads used to regale us with stories of their exploits. Mine had access to a rooftop where pigeons came to roost. I spent my childhood listening raptly to Dad's stories of how one could get pigeons addicted to rice soaked in Chinese tea... and how one could trap pigeons using nothing but a box, a stick and a long long string. Then there was something about stealing ice cream. But shush now... because that's illegal and I don't want to get a whole lot of geriatric patients in trouble for their youthful misdemeanours!! Someone else told me that HER Dad and HIS brothers tried to parachute down 2 storeys with an umbrella. The Husband's Dad grew up in Pulau Ubin and spent his days swimming and hunting and trapping and... and... and... That whole generation of boys (now old men) had a whale of a time growing up.

There weren't any past year papers to practise on... and certainly Popular Bookstore hadn't quite made its fortune on assessment books yet.

Little Boy however, isn't so lucky. He is growing up in an asepticised environment where entire school fields full of enticing green grass are declared off limits to students in Primary schools. WHY?! What a waste of prime real estate?! If the school has a field, why can't the kids go there and run... get sweaty... a little muddy... somewhat dirty... and smell bad? After all, if you know little boys like I do, you'll also know that there is no way to prevent little boys from stinking... and so you might as well let them go to the school field. At least then, their stink can be explained.

Luckily, Little Boy has the good sense to break such a silly rule (together with some kids who strongly object to report cards). The school field has grasshoppers. It's just too fun to catch grasshoppers to stay out of the field. So child after child sneaks and sidles secretly over there to catch grasshoppers.

Very soon, pigeons got into the act. Pigeons are better at catching grasshoppers than our lily-livered... lily-coloured... flabby and asthmatic kids (because schools declare school fields out of bounds), and pigeons always know where the fattest and biggest grasshoppers are. And so, our lily-livered... lily-coloured... flabby and asthmatic kids with overgrown brains (that come from doing lots of past year exams) use their wonderful brains to good effect.

Step 1: Spot the pigeons.
Step 2: Chase off the pigeons.
Step 3: Catch the grasshoppers.

But nobody thought of catching the pigeons eh? We'll have to get our geriatric patients back into school and have them teach our kids a thing or two about catching pigeons. Meanwhile, Little Boy is inspired by the stories of his illustrious forbear's exploits with pigeons and ice cream. He is planning to go pigeon hunting in the school field that is out of bounds to school children.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

House Construction 2: The Demolition


Work has finally begun on the site. The old house has no more roof, and its windows and grilles have all been torn down. It looks now like something from an old photo of wartorn Beirut.

There are three young and robust Indian men housed at the back of the house under a remnant of a sloping ceiling, on 4 single beds. There is a fridge, some cooking utensils and a square dining table. I even saw a washing machine, and then I knew that the workers are well-treated. The other 2 worksites that I had viewed had workers washing their clothes by hand in a pail. Not surprisingly, the workers are friendly and they look happy. That is important to me. When I interviewed my contractors, I wanted to get a sense of how they treated their workers and their suppliers. If the main contractor abuses his workers and short changes his suppliers, you can be sure that there'll be corners cut when your house is being built.

I talked at some length with the foreman. He is a grizzly haired Indian man who looks very steady and has been with the company for more than 10 years. That too is a good sign. Long time employees would have mastered much tacit knowledge and skills, and when the contractor's team possesses strong bonds built over time, fewer things will fall between the gaps.

The time to be tough is over. Even as we peeled our eyes and scrutinised every line of numbers and terms within the building contract, we now are prepared to be understanding and evolve within a give and take relationship.

We checked out our contractor's past clients. It's easy. Ring the doorbell on any one of the houses he previously built and ask the people staying there. Check out his credentials on the BCA website. Our contractor has been around since the 1990s, and their name has not changed from the start. It's a boutique contractor who builds 4 to 5 houses a year, and the company is run by a father and his son. I thought it a good sign that the son made it through university and is a qualified civil engineer. The father, who is overseeing my construction is probably not a graduate, but he does know what he is doing and he did build the company's track record.

Our contractor is helpful and I wish to be understanding. And since we really did our homework this time, it is time to place our trust in them. This isn't so different than recruiting staff. Recruit someone good and then trust. Of course, I feel good that the architect and the quantity surveyor are there to monitor aspects of the house that I don't know how to monitor.

The time to be bitchy is at the point of qualifying/sourcing the contractor. Once the contractor is on the team, then being bitchy will just make everyone edgy and then the house will suffer. Most owners building houses for the first time fail to be picky at the very very start. They trust because they know no better. After my experience with the dodgy architect, I picked through eggs to look for bones... and sieved through water to find stones. This way, I hope I can avoid having to be bitchy as the project proceeds.

So far, I am quite pleased. The worksite is neat, and the work progresses quite systematically. This is a sign that the person co-ordinating the work really knows what he's doing, from man management to work scheduling. At this point of the demolition works, it is important to be gentle with the house because a semi-detached house shares a wall with the neighbour. As we tear down our half of the structure, we must strive to preserve the neighbour's half in pristine condition. So, I was quite pleased to see that the workers were careful with cutting the beams between the 2 houses and removing the roof. I'm very pleased that they have been very professional in engaging my neighbours. I don't want to move into a house with angry neighbours!!

It's early days yet though... but this is a good enough start.

Once the 2 houses are properly separated, they will bring in a Monster Machine to knock down the whole structure. We've arranged for an ALL TOGETHER photoshoot where all of us will don hard hats and construction boots, and look cool in front of the Monster Machine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Women's Charter

The government is proposing changes to the Women's Charter. "Last amended substantially in 1996, the Women’s Charter is the basis of family law in Singapore. The current review seeks to enhance the enforcement of maintenance orders, update marriage registration requirements, and address the impact of divorces." See source of text here.

The government has asked for feedback to the Women's Charter. And I am finally getting around to doing just that. It really is lovely that the government actually asked!!

I don't like the thing about the maintenance order. On the face of it, it seems to help. But in substance, these measures will disempower women. A maintenance order that compels a man to pay his wife maintenance is premised on the assumption that "It is the man's job to earn wages for women and children". It lays the responsibility of wage earning squarely on the men.

With responsibility, comes power.

These new amendments effectively give more power to men. I know the logic is convoluted but think of it this way. If it is the man who should earn money to upkeep women, more and more women will stay home... and more and more women will give up career and earnings... and more and more women will be locked in an unequal power relationship with their men (because the one who has the money or earns the wages has more power). Power corrupts. More and more women will be abused. And then the government will have to police other problems.

It is far better to amend the charter in a counter-intuitive way. I suggest that we go the way of the Swedes. "In 1995, Sweden passed a simple but revolutionary law: couples would lose one month of leave unless the father was the one who took it. A second use-it-or-lose-it month was added in 2002, and now more than 80 percent of Swedish fathers take four months off for the birth of a new child, up from 4 percent a decade ago. And a full 41 percent of companies now formally encourage fathers to go on parental leave, up from only 2 percent in 1993. Simply put, men are expected to work less and father more.

By altering the roles of the Swedish father and the Swedish worker, Sweden’s paternity-leave legislation has, in turn, rewritten the rules for Swedish men (and, by extension, women). “Swedish dads of my generation and younger have been raised to feel competent at child-rearing,” writes Slate’s Nathan Hegedus, an American who experienced the system firsthand. “They simply expect to do it, just as their wives and partners expect it of them.” If a man refuses time at home with the kids, he faces questions from friends, family, and, yes, other guys. Policy changes produced personal changes—and then, slowly but surely, society changed as well." Find the source of this text here.

By making it alright for men to care for children, more women will feel able to work. At present, too many highly educated women opt to stay at home for the children, and when a marriage turns sour, women and children suffer because compelling a man to pay maintenance is easier said than done. When young ladies witness such stories of pain and abandonment, they immediately start to think "If I marry, the kids will retard my career progression... and if the marriage turns sour, I will have neither wealth nor love AND I still am stuck with the kids. If I earn enough to amass wealth, then why get married? Hard work and consistent investment will get me wealth. Hard work and consistent investment may not get me a good marriage." As a result, fewer marriages happen.

Blur Ting's example is classic. Her ex-husband has gone AWOL and if she were waiting around for maintenance, she'd have starved to death by now. Happily enough, Blur Ting is one smart woman - beautiful, empowered and strong. She had never stopped working even through the years of an abusive marriage. As such, when divorce happened, she was able to give her kids a good education.

Besides, the men won't like the obvious gender inequality in our legislation either. It makes it easy for gold diggers to entrap men. At the end of the day, mutual respect is founded on an equal power relationship in the home. It sounds cynical, but it is true. Make it alright for men to look after babies. This encourages women to work. Men and women will respect each other's contribution to the marriage (whether child care or financial)... and marriages will be stronger because neither party has an occasion to abuse power.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Runaway Milo

I made up my mind this morning to walk Milo properly, i.e., no more Milo the Bullock pulling Petunia the Cart.

The way to do it is to pull him back firmly and make him sit everytime he pulls ahead of me. The thing about Milo is that he has a stout neck and a small head... like a hen you know... Ever tried to leash a hen?

It didn't take my smart dog long to figure out that he could slip the leash by pulling his small head through the noose of his collar. The collar is quite tight enough thank you... it's the dog's chicken head that's too small.

Anyway, he slipped the leash. I screamed and lunged. He feinted and dodged. And then he stood at a tantalising distance and I swear that he was laughing at me with his tongue lolling out. I begged a piece of bread from a bemused Filipino maid and her giggling charges aged 3, 4 and 5. The 4 people found me the comedic highpoint of their boring morning. Of all days to have an audience, it had to be the one day where I ooze inelegance from every pore. Why isn't there ever such an appreciative audience when I am dressed to the nines, and off to a ball/dance/party/dinner?

It wasn't funny for me who had to run after that chicken head Milo, but it was mighty amusing for the maid and the three kids. One kid laughed so much he had to sit on the floor. Meanwhile, I ran hither and thither trying to catch the chicken head dog.

The piece of bread brought Mr Chicken Head Dog to grabbing distance and then he dashed away just as soon. And I had no more bread. Desperately, I yelled "SIT!!" And he sat. I collared him and then carried him home.

Milo is a big dog. I am a small woman. It was not a good experience in the least having to carry Mr Chicken Head Dog home!!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Still in Love With Singapore

Everyday, on the internet, there are people with nothing better to do than to spout negative things about everything Singaporean. Those who are grateful for their opportunites are often too busy to write counter remarks to gratuitious insults about who Singaporeans are and what we do... and mostly what the government has done and is doing.

It is these persons' very own negativity about the world that blinds them to the beauty of Singapore and the opportunities the government provides and provided. These people would lose out anyway whatever the system of government because they see no opportunities when opportunities abound. They see nothing to be thankful for even when they live and breathe the blessings of clean water, clean estates, clean politicians, clean hawker centres, good education, continuing education, varied cuisines, eclectic entertainment, loving families, warm weather... and so much more.

Yet, there are those who are grateful and give thanks all the way from faraway Tasmania - http://mysinfonia.blogspot.com/2010/10/if-iron-man-had-shrugged.html. This is a post worth reading because it says so much that I had no words to say.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Family's True Colours

A family's true colours are seen when it grieves. Call me stupid but I downloaded every single one of Mrs Lee Kuan Yew's eulogies, and saved them. As I read them, I cried and cried and cried... One cannot help but feel a deep and enduring bond with a couple that has done so much for Singapore, and could have shared in its prosperity through gold-plated taps and marble vestibules... but who choose to bathe with a water scoop (from a tub)... and think twice before buying a cheap hairbrush... and whose children played with odds and ends from a tailor's shop.

It makes me mad that people write awful things about the Lee family. How they are motivated by money, and how they are guilty of nepotism... Why would someone who eschews gold taps want more and more and more money? If I recall correctly, Lee Hsien Loong did not draw a salary for an entire year. Do they live in palaces? Do they have a personal fleet of Rolls Royces? Do their wives appear in public decked out like X'mas trees with baubles that nourish neither mind nor soul? Why would they be guilty of nepotism when they seem to give so much effort but never claim their ascendance? What this family does, I wouldn't want to do. You give so much of yourself and you still have to live like anyone else. There is nothing in it for me.

I'm not sure that the average Singaporean like you and I would be able to withstand the temptation of being at the top of the world and being able to cherry pick off the prosperity of an island miracle. Wouldn't it be so easy to say "My family brought you where you are today, and we deserve our dues." These dues being wealth, wealth and more wealth? Palaces, yachts and diamonds the size of my eyeballs...

But no... Mrs Lee Kuan Yew ensured that her children lived the values that she believed. She taught them to live restrained and sober lives, dedicated to the defence of what is good.

If there was error, perhaps they erred in their enthousiasm to make life good for a people who started out poor, and in these people's joys of being nouveau riche, these people went berserk with branded goods, gold taps and ostentatious consumption... even when they could afford it less than the Lee family could.

It's awful that people are so ungrateful. That they have forgotten that were the story differently written... women may not have equal access to education... grown men may not know how to read and write (let alone graduate from ITE)... we might still be living in 3rd world squalor.

Who to blame then?

If you want dialogue in Singapore, you CAN dialogue. Those who wish to give feedback to the revisions to the Women's Charter can do so. The MCYS website invites feedback. I intend to feedback. I just have to find the time. I even wrote a post telling people not to vote for George Yeo and two others much maligning the poor man. No one has yet come in the night to bundle me up, clap me in jail and torture a confession from me.

It's awful that poisonous words still circulate on the internet about a family that is just like yours and mine, worried about spending too much on a hairbrush... pained at the suffering of a loved one... and grieving at her loss.

But no... what am I writing? The Lee Family is NOT like yours NOR mine. It is a family that has preserved the values from the 1960s through the generations. Singaporeans no longer live frugal and simple lives anymore... and money has become everything. Our cares are replete with Le Creuset pots, Longchamps bags, Louis Vuitton wallets, Nespresso machines and all manner of THINGS.

And when our little country is buffetted by global storms and some degree of over-compensation in policy leads to temporary runaway housing prices... or when our children don't do well in 2nd language... or when bus routes change... we take out our expensive laptops and curse the government on the internet.

Really all we need to do is dialogue. There is no need to fling insults and curses. Because really, when we accuse another of being money-minded, it shows that we are the money-minded ones... because humans tend to project their own motives on others. When we accuse another of being a nepotic, it shows that in their position, we would be... because humans tend to project their own motives on others.

When you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you.