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


If We Were Having Coffee … with Music

Digital Camera
Freeimages.com/Michael R.

If we were having coffee it would be decaf because it’s late. We’d talk about everything and eventually get around to music. I’d tell you about my new favorite band, Kaleo. They are an indie alt-rock/pop/folk group that’s just hitting the air waves in the US and Canada. I like their bluesy “Way Down We Go” and have it on repeat on my player. Blues is not really my thing but as I’ve grown older and traveled wider, I’ve found that many of my favorite things change with time and place.

When I was growing up in Jamaica, reggae was the background sound track of daily living. It was the only music on local radio and Bob Marley was considered an upstart for bastardizing the sound of roots reggae. Little did we know that he would be the impetus of reggae going mainstream. I didn’t fully appreciate the range of his impact until last year when I was in Northern Thailand. While driving through the narrow, pot-hole riddled mountain roads, our driver turned up the volume on “Exodus”. We forgot about the nauseous highway and started jamming all the way to Chiang Mai.

During my first year in Beijing, I discovered a love for hard paced rock. Green Day’s “Holiday” was my favorite work-out song and I had sweat inducing playlists with The Killers, Nickelback and Lady Gaga. In 2009, the Great Firewall closed off the world-wide part of WWW and it was impossible to access popular western music legally. Illegal pirated copies? No problem.

The biggest selection of western music was in Sanlitun, a popular bar street district defined by the international embassies around it. The unnamed store had a huge selection of music and movies, shrink-wrapped with discs on the outside of glossy paper box packaging. Occasionally, during government invoked piracy raids, the storefront disappeared overnight. But if you looked around and hung around long enough, someone would beckon you over and lead you to the basement. There the goods would be temporarily housed in makeshift stalls. I am not a fan of buying pirated goods but there were no other listening options at the time. The unexpected outcome was that I bought many CDs blind and in the process, ‘discovered’ music I wouldn’t normally have heard.

In Singapore when I’m held captive in a taxi, I am forced to listen to 70’s crooners and ’80s style pop. Once after hearing one too many songs by the Carpenters, I asked the driver if this was the only radio station in Singapore. He said “I don’t listen to the music. They have good traffic reports.”

In my house I keep my internet radio tuned to my favorite Toronto station. I hear the winter weather reports (not missing it) and Spence diamond commercials (annoying but somebody has to pay for free radio.) I also hear the latest in the alternative rock scene.

Which brings me back to my favorite new band. Kaleo from Iceland. A group of young musicians who combine the chords of the ’60s with the rhythm of gospel tinted blues, to make a vibrant rich sound.

Perfect for late night coffee.

Singapore.  April 2016

Rochor Centre

A unique aspect of Singapore’s landscape is it’s high rise, public housing blocks.  Over eighty percent of the population lives or has lived in an apartment built by the Housing Development Board (HDB).  One of the most iconic is the Rochor Centre. A complex of four distinctively coloured buildings, the Rochor Centre was built in 1977 and is home to over 560 families.

In 2011, the government announced that the buildings would be demolished.  This to make way for construction of a new expressway.  All households would be relocated to new apartments by December 2015. Retail businesses though, of which there were 180, would have to find premises elsewhere.

I don’t have the history of growing up in HDBs, so I can’t share the nostalgia felt by locals on Rochor’s demise. However, it is easy to understand.  HDBs like Rochor are vertical communities in which generations of families have lived. Shops providing all the essentials are located on the lower floors while apartments are on the fifth through fifteenth floors. Business and family is intertwined. One Rochor store owner described her customers as  people she knew as children long before they became in-laws.

Today, most businesses are closed but a small number remain open. On the ground floor, the Fairprice supermarket is still there, along with the essential kopitiam, bakery and eatery.  Upstairs, a lantern maker decorates traditional Chinese lanterns for good luck and prosperity.

However, the majority of the businesses are shuttered with locked doors and signs indicating relocated addresses. The dark corridors and empty hall ways are sad portents of the days ahead.

Local residents hang on.  As of January 2016, ninety percent of them were still there. Some intend to stay until they have to leave.  They’ll continue to gather at the kopitiam, keep up to date and enjoy coffee with friends.   They’ll wait before moving on.

Rochor Centre, Singapore. April 2016

Interested in hearing more?  See this video by the Straits Times news agency.  http://www.straitstimes.com/movideo/embed/1417936?movideo_m=1417936

Filipina Sunday Off

In Singapore domestic help live with their employers during their six day work week. They have Sundays off and usually spend it with their friends.  That’s no different from anywhere else. Except that in Singapore, there aren’t a lot of public spaces for masses of people to meet.   A favourite hub is the Lucky Plaza mall on Orchard Road. Thousands of people pour into the area on Sundays. Think Black Friday and Boxing Day shopping crowds. Or the Rogers Center after a Blue Jays game. Or New Years Eve at Nathan Phillips square. Lots and lots of people.

Normally, I avoid crowds but I’d signed up for a workshop on ‘Documentary Story-telling’. Our group exercise was to craft a photo essay on Filipina maids spending their Sunday on Orchard.

It’s a hard life being a maid, cleaning and caring for one family while living far away from your own.  Many come from the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar.  Typically, they’ll work two years before getting vacation for home trips.   It’s no wonder that on their day off, they reach out to their compatriots and spend the time socializing.

Thomas our workshop teacher, gave us hints for taking surreptitious street photos.  The tip I liked the most was how to take photos with a cell phone in one hand.  It helps to have a long fingers and a good camera phone.  I have neither but with practise and my credit card,  I think I could master it.

Thomas did not spend a lot of time on technicalities, his focus was on messaging and mood capturing. Sometimes it involved taking imperfect pictures. Pictures which by themselves were un-interesting but as part of a whole, made sense.  Conversely, there were pictures which were fine by themselves but as part of a whole, did not connect with the others.

Here is the photo essay on Filipina Sunday Day Off. There is one disconnected picture. Can  you find it?

Photo credit to my partners Luc and Patricia.

Orchard Rd, Singapore.  April 2016

If you’re in Singapore and would like to attend Thomas Tham’s “Art of Storytelling Documentary” workshop, check it out here.