Playing with Light in Black & White


I don’t usually shoot in black & white but in my last photo walk I decided to set my LCD to monochrome.  What a difference.  I saw scenes I wouldn’t normally have seen. The absence of color forced me to look at the shadows and light.

Some pictures, like the play on reflections below, I would have missed.  In fact, when I loaded the RAW files in Lightroom, I was startled at the display of color.

These are the pictures that I took in monochrome:


These are the pictures that Lightroom showed:


Color or monochrome, they both have their appeal.

But without the monochrome LCD, I would never have seen the view.


Singapore. June 2017


Ice Cream Sandwich

Ice Cream Sandwich

The Sandy Food Chronicles

The New York Times posted an article on The Joys of a Classic Ice Cream Sandwich,  It says

“Designer ice cream sandwiches, made with amped-up cookies, fancy sprinkles and crazy flavors, can be tasty, but the classic combination of a chocolate base and vanilla ice cream pleases everyone”

Singaporeans might disagree.

This is what a Traditional Ice Cream Sandwich looks like.

I had mango flavor but I could have had red bean, corn or durian.

It’s a thick slice of ice cream wrapped up with pillowy soft, rainbow colored bread because it’s a sandwich.

Singapore. June 2017

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Bit and Pieces of Singapore

Painted Ladies in Joo Chiat

Seems like there are a  lot of Challenges in the WordPress blogosphere. 

I’m not sure that I can participate in all of them all of the time but I will try some, some of the time. 

Let’s see how I do.

Today’s challenge is from Cee Neuner’s Share Your World

What is something that people are obsessed with but you just don’t get the point of?

Mobile phones.

I’m a child of the ‘70s when portable telephones meant long extension cords. Maybe that’s why I don’t get the current day obsession with connectivity.

In my part of the world where phone plans are cheap (compared to North America) and cars are expensive (entry price is $120,000), I see lots of commuters engrossed with their phones. So engrossed that they’ll walk heads down into traffic.

Worse are the ones who play games without ear phones; as if we all want to hear their pings, dings and noise emissions.

Most distressing are toddlers held mesmerized by their parent’s phone. Mobiles become electronic pacifiers and little humans are being trained to see the world through a 7x15cm window.

What quirky things do people do where you are from?

There is no fear of color in Singapore’s buildings. Historic shop houses are painted in pretty pastels, stodgy government buildings have crayola colored shutters and ugly apartment blocks are doused in exuberant playground colors.

Shop House in Bukit Pasoh
MICA Government building. Photo credit: Erwin Soo


What are some things you wish you could unlearn? 

It’s too easy to pick up terms & odd wordings when living in a foreign country. Lately, I’ve been forgetting to “off the lights” when leaving a room and more often than not, I say “can” when answering with an affirmative.

It’s not a problem, so long as I’m in Singapore. My friends in Canada though, they’re starting to look at me strange.

Who is someone that you miss having in your life?

In Singapore 72% of the population is of Chinese descent with many migrating from South China in the late nineteenth & early twentieth century. As such, Singaporeans have an ethnic heritage similar to my parents and grand-parents. I see it in the faces of people on the street. My grandfather’s eyes. My mother’s nose. It’s present too in the local food and traditions. Many Singaporean dishes recall flavors from long forgotten family meals.

My family history is not Singaporean but our Chinese heritage share a common root. It would have been nice to have my mother and grand-mother (long deceased) around to ask questions and compare memories.

Did you ever make that? What was it called? Do you remember this?

Singapore. 2017


SG-çoise Salad

This is a SG-çoise salad.

What’s that?

It’s a not-Salad Niçoise made from ingredients found in Singapore.

Ingredients like ‘granola washed’ Brastagi potatoes from Indonesia, ‘crunchy crisp tomatoes’ from Malaysia. Bottled olives from Spain, Carrefour mustard from France and Kewpie mayo from Japan. The eggs are brown not white, are never refrigerated and sold only in multiples of five, not twelve.

Why is it not Niçoise?

A classic niçoise is made with olives, tomatoes, beans, eggs and anchovies – never potatoes. I don’t like anchovies. I do like potatoes.

What makes it Singaporean?

That not an ingredient is made or grown in Singapore.
That everything is imported.
That it’s a mixture of savory, salty, bitter and sweet.
That it’s food and it tastes good.

Is it there a recipe?

There can be. But it is here and not here. Because this not a recipe blog.

Singapore. March 2017


eystreetogws-0460One of the things I do is write.  Not only blog writing like this, but short story and creative non-fiction  writing. An essential part of writing is reading and as every creative writing student knows, an essential part of reading is learning how to give feedback.

For every novice student a dreaded ordeal is the writing workshop where your work is critiqued by peers. After a couple hundred times the ordeal becomes less so and the learning value becomes apparent.  The value of work-shopping is for both the writer and the reviewers.

I’ve never thought much about the similarity between writing and photography.  In my mind they were totally different things. Writing, particularly fiction writing was about making stuff up. Photography, particularly street was about capturing real life images on the fly.

I recently attended a Street Photography workshop with Hubby.  We’d registered months before, it was a sold out session but I seriously hadn’t been in the mood. We’d just come off a ten day trip where we’d spent our time shouldering through the 1.2 billion crowds in China. Given a choice, I would have really preferred to retreat from humanity and hide out in my cave.

Instead, bright and early on a Saturday morning I was in a room filled with amp’ed up men strung out on coffee and DSLRs. They strutted about pointing their cameras at each other, talking in that f-stop-shutter-speed babble-speak that photographers like so much.  The session was in a Leica store and I walked around looking at sleek new cameras housed in artfully lit glass boxes. Cameras so expensive that they didn’t have price tags, just discreet cards advertising savings ‘starting at $1800.’ A dull roar of excitement announced the arrival of our workshop leader Eric Kim.

Eric was an electrifying, high-energy, enthusiastic guy.  He talked fast and short, in a voice pitched slightly above normal.  With his close cropped hair, bright round eyes and frenetic smile he reminded me of a manic Asian Tintin. I didn’t know it at the time but Eric was a famous street photographer.  I just thought of him as a kid, young enough to be my son and way too peppy for 10AM in the morning.

I won’t go into how the day progressed.   It was good. I took pictures. Learned some stuff. Talked with the DSLR men, they weren’t so bad. Waited for Eric to calm down.

My big revelation came in the feedback session when we each shared our Three Best photos and critiqued them as a group. While work-shopping I suddenly realized that there were many parallels between writing and  photography.

Both are created realities, encapsulated in word or form.   The best pieces are those that tell or hint at a back-story. Both have complexities of layers – the ones we see and the ones hidden below the surface.  The best works are those that invite the viewer to look around, to think about what happened before, what will happen next. Good stories make an emotional connection. Good pictures do, too.

One of Eric’s nuggets of advice was  “Do not take pictures, make them.”

That’s what creativity is all about – making stuff up.

The other thing I learned was that I had a photographic style. Much like a writers voice, photographers have an individualistic way of capturing scenes and people.  It shows in the way they tell their stories and take pictures. Without attention that style is unconscious, intuitive and raw.  With attention, it can evolve.

When Eric projected my Three Best  he asked the room what they thought when they viewed them as a whole.

“Secrets,” someone said.

“Strange,” I thought.  I wouldn’t have described them that way. But when I looked again I saw what he meant.

I also understood why I had selected the ‘Girl’ shot.  Of the three, it had been my  favorite but I couldn’t have explained why.  With that single comment, I knew.


It was an ordinary shot about an ordinary girl who had a little bit of mystery. The half space background, leading lines and rain slicked pavement gave a sense of loneliness.  The turned away figure to the left emphasized her isolation. The light and shadows on her face were pensive but her slight smile showed hope.

De-constructed, these were  the elements that provided the first impression or initial read, of the photo. The second were the questions. What happened to the girl before this? What was she thinking? What were her secrets?

In creative writing we’re encouraged to show and not tell our stories.  In photography, we tell our stories in what we show and what we don’t.

So in that single comment I had a personal epiphany.  Suddenly I had insight into the types of pictures I faved and those that I made.   I also saw what I didn’t make.  In reviewing other peoples’ shots, I analyzed what I liked and more importantly, why  liked them.   I saw techniques that I could use or at least try. I saw compositions around the edges that took me out of the frame but added to the image.  I saw accidents of light that  worked and wondered how to make them deliberate. Suddenly, by being conscious of my own style,  I recognized all the things that I had not been doing. Techniques that I could adopt, adapt and evolve into my own.

So that’s the value in work shopping. It’s something that I’ve appreciated in my creative writing group and something that I’ve come to appreciate in photography.

Singapore.  November 2016

Hello Streettogs!

When I first read Eric Kim’s email confirming his street photography workshop, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant.  Hello Streettogs! Did  he mean street-hogs,  like for bikers? or street-togs, like for shoes?  Only after saying it out loud did I figure it out.  This was the first thing I learned from Eric.

Over the next couple days I had the chance to learn more.  Hubby and I were part of a workshop on “Conquering Your Fears in Street Photography” where we walked through Singapore practicing the Art of Street according to Eric.


On our first day we focused on rejection – how to conquer the fear of strangers by asking their permission to take photos and then dealing with the no’s. I call it the day of “Cans and Cannots.”  Since we were in the heart of Chinatown it was very easy to get the “Cannots.” I quickly exceeded my quota of five No’s.  The big surprise though was the number of Yes’s.  My end of day tally showed fifty percent more Yes’s than No’s. Even more surprising were the quality of shots  taken with permission.

The big lesson of the day was to take many shots and work the scene by taking different angles and poses. It’s very tempting to shoot and run but Eric’s advice was to take at least ten shots and then twenty percent more.   I didn’t quite achieve that target but found that my best shots were from sets of multiples,  of people I’d engaged and talked with over a period of time.

mafia-contact-sheet-2The second day we focused on Candids. We shot sneak streets and practiced taking photos on the sly.  One of Eric’s tips was to take pic’s but continue shooting long after the subject’s moved out of the frame. I admit to not having any good shots on day 2.  Maybe I was too ‘ttogged out – I was just coming off an 10 day trip.  I felt a little bit like this guy.


My favorite part of the workshop was the feedback session at the end.  We each shared our three best shots with the group, gave and received critiques and voted on each person’s best shot. My classmates had some amazing pictures and showcased a range of style and perspectives. For a view of  their work, have a look here.

These were my 3 Best Shots. Can you guess which was voted best?


For good reading and great tips on taking street photography check out Eric Kim’s blog.  He also gives fun workshops but sign up fast because they sell out quick!

Singapore. November 2016

Improbable Claims

Singaporeans are the fastest walkers on the planet

If we were having coffee ... I’d show you a snapshot I took in an airport gift shop. I apologize upfront.  It’s an imperfect shot with half the signage missing but I had to rush because the shop attendant had me in her sights and was hurrying over.

As an aside I’ll say it’s a unique Chinese-Asian retailing technique, to employ shop attendants to tout passersby. They hook you in with clever signage then reel you in with friendly calls to look-look and try.

crocodile oil
Crocodile Oil

In another store there was a display of the latest in restorative skin care – Crocodile Oil. Intrigued, I’d stopped to read the packaging.  The shop attendant rushed over to give me her spiel.  She said that the product was excellent for softer, smoother skin and promised to deliver wrinkle and scar free complexions.  Having never admired crocodile skin myself, I expressed doubt in the claim. She assured me “It is 100% ORGANIC. Pure and Natural! You Should TRY!”

But back to the picture that I snapped.  Posted above a shelf with over-priced cookies was a sign that said Singaporeans were the fastest walkers on the planet.  Surely not this planet, I thought.

The average Singaporean does not walk fast. This is not a denigration. When it’s 33 degrees and 100% humidity, it is foolhardy to walk fast.  However, Singaporeans have an additional inhibitor – their mobile phones. Cheap rates and unlimited data plans make mobiles perilous to foot commuters. With eyes firmly affixed to their screens, pedestrians decelerate traffic on walkways, escalators and travelators. Westerners from countries of overpriced wireless plans, milder temperatures and lower humidity are often frustrated by our slow moving crowds.

Westerners like Anthony Bourdain. There’s a TV episode where he’s shown trapped on a travelator, in one of Singapore’s busiest subway stations. In typical New York fashion he was itching to move but was hemmed in by people standing stationary on the moving walkway. Under his breath (and into his microphone) he muttered “This is to help you move faster, not move for you.”

I laughed out loud because he reminded me of my similarly impatient hubby.  Even after five years, Hubby has not adjusted to the local pace. Faced with a crowd he’ll bob and weave through people, seeking out gaps in foot traffic and swerving around suddenly stationary phone readers.  His frustrated mutter is “Move any slower and we’d be going backwards.”

So from where did this implausible claim originate?  My trusty Google search uncovered this CNN article outlining the results of a study by British psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman.  In it, researchers found a busy street with a wide pavement that was flat, free from obstacles and sufficiently uncrowded to allow people to walk at their maximum speed.  They then measured people’s walking rates and compared the results for thirty cities. Singaporeans were the fastest, clocking in at 3.9 miles per hour, which was 15 percent faster than New Yorkers.

But here’s the rub: Researchers monitored only adults who were on their own and ignored those on their mobile phones or struggling with shopping bags.

Allow me to point out that Singapore has a 150% penetration of the mobile market. For  every Singaporean who has a phone, the one beside him has two.  Additionally, Singapore’s #1 recreational sport is Shopping. When they are not eating, they are shopping.  Whether or not they are eating or shopping, they are always on their phone.

So exactly how many Singaporeans did these researchers monitor?

My guess is two. They clocked Anthony Bourdain and Hubby making a run for a gap in the crowd.


Singapore. June 2016 



Bak Chang

Bak Chang rice dumplings

If we were having coffee … I’d invite you to have the last of my stash of bak chang. I have three types: Nonya, Hokkien and Kee.  My favorite is the Kee which is also called  crystal chang. It’s  delicious with gula melaka and heady with the scent of pandan and bamboo leaves.

What is bak chang?

Bak chang is the Hokkien word for sticky rice dumpling.   It is also called zongzi in Mandarin and joong in Cantonese.  In the US it’s sometimes called Chinese tamale but that’s just wrong – let’s not refer to it as that.  These pyramid shaped, leaf wrapped dumplings show up in Chinese shops and eating houses every year  around June.   It  is a celebration food for the Duanwu festival and Dragon Boat races.

Chinese legend goes that when the beloved scholar Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing himself in the river, villagers tried to save him by rushing out with their (dragon) boats. When they failed to retrieve him, they threw rice dumplings (chang) into the water to dissuade fishes from eating his body.

Like all Chinese legends this is highly romanticized and thoroughly unbelievable.   You only have to make bak chang once to appreciate the time and effort it takes to make these delectable dumplings. No way is anyone going to throw them overboard for fishes to eat.

When I looked at the class schedule on Rosaline Soon’s Grandmothers Recipes website I didn’t know what bak chang was.  But Rosaline was offering a half day class  in Chang Making and since she is my favorite source for Peranakan dishes, I had to go.

Making chang is labor intensive.  It takes a minimum two days to prepare all the ingredients – from washing and soaking the leaf wrappers, preparing and cooking the rice and fillings, to the final arduous task of  wrapping the packages and cooking them for hours.  In the olden days, Rosaline said that people even had to sort through  the uncooked rice to separate the  non-glutinous grains from the desirable glutinous ones.  In our class we only had to worry about wrapping the dumplings.  Our teacher Julia, had prepared everything else ahead of time.

How to wrap bak chang

When I say only the wrapping, this understates the complexity of the task. For the uninitiated, wrapping chang is like learning to tie shoelaces when you’re 3 years old without the bunny ears song.   You fold this and that, hold it so, fill it up, turn it around, twist and … if you’re Julia … you end up with a perfect pyramid.  If you’re me … you end up with a handful of rice.

Over the course of four hours, I tried to wrap six changs, all of which had to rescued and re-wrapped by Julia.  I think I may have mastered the art of tying the string. Although sometimes the chang did look a bit strangulated.   OK, maybe I only mastered the art of knotting the string.

What makes bak chang different from joong or zongzi?  That would be the flavor and the fillings.   Bak chang is heavily seasoned with garlic, shallots, ginger, spring onions, coriander, five spices, three types of soya sauce, dried shrimp, pork, mushrooms etc. Nonya chang goes one step further in localizing it. Characteristic of some Peranakan dishes, it is tinted blue with an extract of pea flowers – adding yet  another couple hours to the total preparation time.

My favorite is Kee chang.  It is made solely with sticky rice but soaked overnight with a mysterious yellow alkaline crystal. The alkaline changes the color to an amber yellow and the rice becomes more gummy and chewy.  Unlike the others, Kee chang is a sweet and it is served with gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup, honey or kaya (coconut jam).   It is also good with dollops of golden orange marmalade.  Nice with coffee but perfect with tea.

Nonya and Kee chang

Singapore.  June 2016



Spectators in Seoul

Quick. When you see this picture what do you think?

If you’re my brother: “Why all those people wearing Kleenex boxes?”

If you’re me:  “Dude, even the kid up front figured it out.”

If you’re my Korean friend: “There ain’t nothing wrong here.”

Old Lady and Maid
Sidewalk blockers

Actually, the Koreans are no more phobic about sun exposure than the Japanese, Chinese or Singaporeans.

In fact most Asian women seem abnormally preoccupied in keeping their skin pale and blemish free.

In Singapore on really sunny days (that would be 9 out of 10 days) I am routinely sideswiped by exploding umbrellas at crowded street corners.

On busy and not so busy sidewalks, it’s challenging to dodge slow moving people with unfurled umbrellas.

At times like these I appreciate the merits of another distinctively Asian head wear – the full-face, paisley piped, sun eclipsing  visor cap.

Caps for sale

Seoul & Singapore. June 2016

Kopi, Coffee talk and Singlish

nytsinglish 2 If we were having coffee … we’d be talking about a recent New York Times article on Singlish.  It gives context to a website I stumbled on a while ago.  Sponsored by the Speak Good English movement, it is  a government initiative to  “… en­cour­age Sin­ga­pore­ans to speak gram­mat­i­cally cor­rect Eng­lish that is uni­ver­sally un­der­stood.”

On the site are dry and humorless pages that describe grammar rules and proper pronunciation. Reading it, my eyes glaze over at the ponderous distinction between countable and noncountable nouns.  I wonder who could learn from this.  It seems a pointless endeavor.

Besides for what reason should Singaporeans change the way they speak?

Mid-thought I realize the hypocrisy of my words. I grew up in another post-colonial society where status was tied to the way of speaking. On the highest rung were the modulated tones of upper crust British. At the lowest was the idiom rich language of the common man.

In primary school (then called Prep school)  we had weekly lessons in diction. Mrs. H was a battle-axe of a teacher who led us through pronunciation drills describing ‘Billy Button buying Buttered Biscuits’ and ‘She Sells Sea shells by the Sea Shore’.  Class drills were not so bad but once a month we had individual tests on elocution.

This was my introduction to the fear of public speaking. One by one we’d stand by our desk, nervously awaiting our turn.  Once, I’d worked myself into such a state, I fainted from anxiety (it happens). According to Mrs H, I collapsed in an apoplectic fit, twitching and foaming at the mouth. Mrs H was also the drama teacher, so maybe her description was a tad theatrical.

I’ve subsequently found that I have an ear for accents. It doesn’t translate into a talent for languages (I don’t have the memory for vocabulary) but I can mimic English in a range of  intonations. Maybe that’s why I don’t mind hearing the lyrical tones of  Singlish.

True, because the language is idiom rich it can be hard to understand. Funny thing though, with context and Singaporeans’ flare for dramatic expression, whatever they say it makes sense.

Consider this.

When  a person is overly conceited and tremendously arrogant, is there a better way to describe him than  yaya papaya? 

When a young man ‘talks cock’ with his buddies, can you not guess what it means?

… and could anything be more right and obviously correct than corright?

Hear these phrases once and you’ll remember them forever.

Singapore. June 2016

For the full New York Times article see Do You Speak Singlish? by Gwee Li Sui