Friday, February 26, 2010

Chinese New Years-- Sentosa / Henderson Wave / Istana

I've been busy with some issues on our main computer recently (blog entry to come), and our many activities during our  recent four day holiday, have resulted in me falling behind in chronicling and posting pictures of our adventures--  Now finally getting posted--  JK
28-2-2010-- Corrections

Chinese New Year
[ Weds, Feb 17 ]  This past weekend was a national holiday for Singapore, Chinese New Year, which provided Elaine with two days of holiday-- a four day weekend.  Coincidentally, CNY and Valentine's Day were on the same day this year, February 14, both of which are celebrated here.  CNY is bigger event than Christmas in western countries, and is a time of hopeful prosperity, eating, and celebration.  The celebration goes on for quite a while-- it starts in late January, and will end on Feb 28.
This year is the year of the tiger, and there are many tigers to be seen about town.  (Pictures and costumes, not the real thing)  Many businesses are closed, some for a full week. (We are forced to take a break from the furniture excursions). Of course for many of the global retailers and restaurants-- Starbucks, Burger King,  it was business as usual.  CNY is also a time when many people take holiday retreats in Malaysia or Indonesia-- Bali or such.  And for those living in the surrounding region, Singapore is not a bad place to come visit during this holiday season, so there are a lot of tourists in town at this time.  Consequently for us, travel for the long weekend was pretty well booked and not feasible.  It would have required some a priori planning and reservations, which we didn't do (oh well!).
One big event that occurred very close to us was the opening of the Resorts World Sentosa-- their first big holiday weekend for bookings, although the resort is quite a ways from being completed.  The resort is the first of two entries in the "IR industry" (Integrated Resort).  IR's are the destination vacation resorts that have a little bit of everything for everybody--  a theme park, spas, restaurants, shopping... and a casino.  This follows the lead of Las Vegas with their alluring destination resorts.  In this case Resorts World Sentosa will have a Universal Studios theme park, which has yet to open.  However the casino has.  This will be a high class establishment-- entry to the casino requires a fee of S$100 for S'poreans, which has been quite a controversial discussion in the editorials.

Mount Faber Park / Henderson Waves
[ Saturday, Feb 13 ]--  With so much down time on her hands for the upcoming four day holiday weekend, Elaine was ecstatic  (of course as a non-working individual, every day is a holiday for me).  We thought we would spend some time exploring the area, and taking advantage of the the CNY events going on around town.
On Saturday we morning left the apartment and started up the road to Mount Faber Park, which is directly adjacent.  This was our second journey in the park, having done a short tour of it after signing our lease, but prior to our move-in.  It is not a large park, but is quite nice--  a reserve of tropical jungle that must have once covered most of the island.  The road to the top is one of two access routes for tour buses (and overachiever cyclists).   Mount Faber provides a  panoramic view of Sentosa Island, and the southwest bay area of Singapore.  There is also a restaurant (The Jewell Box), and when open, a tramway that conveys said tourists over to Sentosa Island.  The tram is currently closed for renovations.
On this day, the temperature is about 90F, but the humidity is pushing  70%.  Although Mount Faber is barely a hill by most anyone's standards, reaching the top requires, not unexpectedly, going uphill.  There are a set of (many) stairs that provide a pedestrian access to the top, which we chose to take.  It is at this significant set of stairs that I began to puff a bit, and I am quickly reminded that it is hot here in Singapore.  Ten minutes out of the apartment and I am already overheated.  We soon reached the top, as it is not far, and stopped to take some pictures, before continuing.  For me the stop is to try to stop gushing sweat.  Our goal for the hike is to at least reach and cross the Henderson Waves bridge, before returning to the apartment. 
We learned that Mount Faber Park is actually only one of several parks in the Southern Ridges  National Park system at the southern end of the island, strung together by connecting pathways over 9 Km.  The Henderson Waves is a bridge that connects Mount Faber Park with its neighbor, Telok Blangah Hill Park.  Next to this (connected by another bridge) is "Hort Park", or Horticulture Park, followed by Kent Ridge Park.    The Mount Faber and Telok Blangah Hill parks are separated  by a major roadway, Henderson Road, with a arching foot bridge to connect them.  The Henderson Waves bridge is  elevated 36 meters above Henderson Road, and is architecturally unique.  If you are a bit squeamish on heights, don't look down.
See Southern Ridges Map
Henderson Waves Bridge

Elaine on Henderson Waves

When hiking here in Singapore, it is wise to keep your expectations for covering distances in check, as the heat and humidity is significantly taxing.  Having water with you is also a good idea.  The total distance for our walk this morning did not exceed 5 Km, yet we were done in at its end.  (Any physical fitness I had is apparently fleeting)  We spent the remainder of the afternoon lounging by the apartment swimming pool.
At the far end of Mount Faber Park is an old mansion, the Alkaff mansion,  uninhabited, and not open for visitors.  There is also an exercise trail (with exercise stations) that circles the far end of the park, near the bridge.  I saw no one using the stations while we were passing by-- I think they would likely be dead from heat exhaustion.
The Alkaff mansion

This mansion was built by Syed Abdul Rahman Alkaff, whose ancestors arrived in Singapore in 1852 from Indonesia, although he was from Yemen.  The family gained their wealth through trade between Indonesia and India of sugar, spices, and coffee, and later real estate.  There are several historic properties and developments in Singapore attributed to the Alkaffs.  The mansion was built and used as a family retreat in the 1920's, providing a venue for entertaining customers and business associates.  The mansion was abandoned sometime after World War II.  In 1986 plans were initiated to restore the mansion and use it as a stylish restaurant--  apparently this has not progressed.  There are keep out / no trespassing signs posted.

Sentosa Lights of Spring
[Saturday Feb 13]--  To partake in some of the CNY events we took the monorail over to Sentosa Island, where there is a small festival going on.  The island was lit in colorful strings of lights, and decorated with festive chinese new years decorations.  There was also live music.  The lighting reminded me of the Boise Botanical Garden Festival of Lights during the Chrismas/New Year season.  The large Merlion statue was lit by large projecting lights, in colors and patterns, changed periodically.
The Merlion at Sentosa Island, lit up for the Lights of Spring

A few moments later, Merlion is a different color, with the changing projection of lights

No-- not Robert Redford and The Electric Horseman.  This person is either very tall, or standing on stilts.

This group was performing when we arrived at Sentosa Lights of Spring-- they were excellent!  The musician (Mhd Noor) in the center is playing a dulcimer, the one on the right an electric saxophone (a what?).  The drummer on the left is playing a Cajon, an afro-Peruvian box drum--  can you get more diverse than that?  The group is called the Dulcet Project Band,  and their music were covers of some Western (e.g. Beatles, not country & western), and some either local or their own jazz-like tunes.  Splendid!

On this visit, it is our first chance to see what has been built for the RWS.  Below the plaza, where you disembark from the monorail, a walkway leads down the hill a short ways towards the casino.  The walkway leads directly to a very large set of fountains, with a cover and seating around it.  Past the fountains are a set of shops, and beyond that, the casino and hotel.  We didn't go past (or in) the shops.
A number of people were sitting in the area around the fountain, and we learned that a show was about to begin.  The show turned out to be a choreographed fountain and laser light show.  The fountains are programmed to shoot tall jets, or pulsated jets, and at one point, large flames covered the fountain from obscure torches built into the artwork.  Overhead misting pipes came on periodically, providing a canvas of steam (mist) for a laser light to reflect on.

Great entertainment for an evening and worth the price of admission-- a S$3.00 each round-trip monorail ride to Sentosa Island.

Fountain light show at Resort World Sentosa.  Note the mist from overhead sprayers.  The mist is used as a projection "screen" for the laser light show.  The fountain itself has many lights, and not clearly visible in this picture, gas torches that can create a pyrotechnic show over the fountain.  The fountain itself has water jets that can shoot water across the fountain, or in large geysers.  Collectively, the fire, lights, and water are choreographed to music for the show.  I presume this will be an ongoing event at RWS.
Flames of the pyrotechnic portion of the fountain light show at RWS

Istana-- The Presidential Residence
[Sunday Feb 14 ]--  During certain holidays, the presidential residence of Singapore, called Istana (A Malay word meaning "Palace") is opened to the public for tours.  We decided to meet our new friends and take the tour of the palace.
Although this is called the presidential residence, the president does not reside there-- he lives in a modest house in one of the older Singapore neighborhoods.  Istana is the official residence, and used as a formal reception venue for visiting dignitaries and foreign state officials.  It is located on 100+ acres of land located on Orchard Road, set back quite a ways out of sight-- in the very heart of the city.  (When I first arrived I mistook the estate to be an embassy--there are a few of these in the area).
The estate and house dates from the mid 1800s--  the then governor of the British colony of Singapore was not pleased with the quality of his current living quarters, and lobbied the government for the funds to build "suitable" housing.  The building, called Government House, was designed in 1867 and completed in 1869.  It served as the colonial governor's residence until 1959, when it was handed over to the newly formed Republic of Singapore.  (During the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945, it was used by the Japanese military).  The house was rename Istana, and was extensively renovated between 1996 and 1998.  In addition to the Presidential house, there are guest bungalows, and a 9-hole golf course on the grounds.  Playing a round here would be a very elite experience.  The tours only allowed access to three rooms in the residence, which had displays of the many gifts received from foreign nations during various official visits.  (The one gift displayed from the United States was a art object with a white dove.)  No photography was allowed inside the palace.
Outside the residence and down the hill a bit was a statue of Queen Victoria of Great Britain.  Apparently this statue once stood at the end of the State Room in the Government House, but she was "deposed" in 1959 and relegated to a lesser location, in the garden.  (The official story is that the statue was removed and then relocated, for a restoration).  Out damn imperialists!
Istana, official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore.  The red flag is the presidential standard, whereas the flag for ROS has a white bar across the bottom.

Queen Victoria, now exiled to her lonely location in the garden

One of the greens of the Presidential 9-hole GC.  The pin flags are the Presidential Flag for ROS.  Do you suppose the president is allowed to take mulligans on this course?

Our new friends Rick and young son Ezra at Istana

Singapore's version of the G.B. Black Watch guards.  Elaine and our friend Made doing their best to annoy one of the Presidential guards.  (Careful-- he has a nasty looking gun)  The guard ignored them, and the other visitors seeking pictures.  I hope the soldier's pay is sufficient to compensate for the irritation that they experience during the open house tours.

Hongbao Festival  (River Hongbao 2010)
[Tuesday Feb 16]--  Another festival occurring during the month of CNY celebration is the Hongbao Festival.  This is being held in the Esplanade and Marina Bay area, on the floating platform.  (Coincidentally, the second of the two IRs is in this neighborhood, but still under construction).  The festival for 2010 is billed as a multi-cultural event, with arts and entertainment provided by artists from many different countries.
We went down on Tuesday afternoon to check it out, and found it to be a bit disappointing.  Apparently we were here on a bad day, or perhaps it is more of an evening thing.  The festival is has similarities to a county fair.  There were carnival-style rides (with the usual loud music, screaming riders, and noise), and vendor booths.  There were a few stalls with artists selling artwork, and a food stall, which we didn't go in.  One booth had a small shadow puppet theatre, which was interesting.  There was a large stage out on the floating platform, but apparently shows only occur in the evenings, as there were none that afternoon.  One or two of the artist stalls were closed up-- with their owners taking the national holiday day off.  CNY holidays are important family days, even if you are a participant in a CNY festival.
Gateway to the Hongbau Festival, on Marina Esplinade

The Marina, from the floating arena.  The building under construction is the Marina Sands Resort, one of two Integrated Resort casinos recently licensed for Singapore.

Booths for the Hongbau Festival, along the Esplinade.  That is the Singapore Flyer in the background.

This was pretty cool-- a dragon float, constructed out of "china" dishes

Vivo City Art Festival
On our way to the Hongbao Festival, we stopped at our own local shopping mall, Vivo City.  (Vivo City has the closest MRT subway station to us beneath it).  Vivo City also has several events ongoing for CNY, and we stopped to catch one of these, a 30 minute show of unicycle acrobatics, ballet, and illusionist.  It was not on the same level as the Cirque de Soleil show we witnessed in early December (at another shopping mall) but not bad.  The illusionist didn't captivate our attention.   Our best entertainment seems to be at shopping malls.  Here is a short video of the unicyclist.
Within the mall there has been an art festival for the entire month, with visiting artists from China.  The art show is much like the Boise Art in the Park, with touring artists.  However, I don't think there is any philanthropy associated with it.  The artists are very good, with displays of carved jade, micro carvings of rice (an ancient chinese craft) and other chinese arts.  We purchased two cut-paper artworks, which we found of interest.  The art is silhouette, created by cutting out small slits from paper, and overlaying it on a lighter (or darker) background.  The pictures have a story-- the fish represents family.

Our two recently acquired art pieces, now decorating the wall of the office/guest bedroom.  These are intricately cut from paper (i.e. like "paper dolls"), and then placed on a white background for contrast.  This is allegedly done by hand, and takes several days.  It is a traditional Chinese art form, and we saw a number of artists both at CNY and in China Town with this type of art.  These seemed particularly good to us.  There is a story that goes with each one, which unfortunately we will not remember-- we appreciate them regardless of the meaning.  I'm partial to the fish.
Another artist we watched created incredible landscape pictures using only his fingers--  light years beyond my own finger painting creations so many years ago in Kindergarten.

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