Sunday, January 20, 2008

Off to Myanmar!

Hi all. Sorry for the tardy updates but have been pretty busy for the past week or so. Will be travelling to Myanmar next week as part of a study visit, with the chance to visit some of the more interesting historic sites like the Shwedagon Pagoda (above), National Museum of Myanmar, Mandalay Hill, Bagan Palace and Lake Inle.

Should be fun and hopefully I can blog about it too. :)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Forbidden Pleasures at the World's Largest Palace

Forbidden City (紫禁城) was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 by UNESCO. Widely lauded as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, the huge and sprawling complex at the centre of the city was the home of Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors in China. Built from 1406 to 1420, the palatial city comprises 980 surviving buildings with 8,707 bays of rooms and covers 720,000 square metres!

The world's largest surviving palace complex, the palace is also widely known as Gugong (故宫) in Mandarin. It now houses the Palace Museum, which probably qualifies as the world's largest museum too - if you exclude botanic gardens and zoos. This was also where the Last Emperor (1987) directed and produced by acclaimed Italian film maker Bernardo Bertolucci was filmed.

The characteristic red walls and iconic architecture of the Forbidden City is impressive to behold.

Engaging a local guide was one of the best decisions which we made. Never go to a historic site in Beijing without them, even though you do have to pay a small sum for the service.

This is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which unfortunately was undergoing renovation then. It is also the most important building the complex.

Walking through the Zhao De Gate, which was where scholars were supposed to walk past when seeking an audience with the emperor.

These dragon heads (long tou) served important functions as part of an elaborate drainage system in the series of buildings.

Our next stop was the Hall of Central Harmony or Zhong He Dian. This was a secondary inner hall, which is one of many where the then emperor consorts with his people.

An external view of the Hall of Central Harmony, showing the distinctive architecture of royal buildings during that era.

The halls of some of the major buildings were paved with golden bricks (金砖) which hailed all the way from Suzhou. Apparently, they provided a smooth sheen which became smoother over the years.

This 16 metre long stone slab of carved dragons rolling in clouds is the largest in the palace.

Huge brass urns like these were used to collect water for - surprise, surprise - firefighting purposes! I guess their civil defence officers then were pretty strong to lift these back breakers!

This pretty yellow wall actually served a function in reflecting unwanted ghosts and spirits from the inner residential quarters of the emperor.

The entrance to the Yang Xin Dian or Hall of Mental Cultivation, which was where the emperor rested and lived.

A shot of the chair within the chamber where the emperor sits. Notice the hanging shiny ball above, which will supposedly drop and crash down on a "fake" pretender to the throne.

This series of two chairs lined one behind the other is interesting, as it shows the emperor in front was actually controlled by the Empress Dowager Cixi - the real woman behind the men!

Yet another palatial building showing how the emperor used to live in splendour...

...and another of the empress in her bedroom, which certainly isn't too shabby either.

We next ventured into the royal gardens, here taking a lovey dovey shot amidst the pair of trees which depicts the romance between the last emperor Pu Yi and his consort Wan Rong.

An interesting coral like looking structure made from a mixture of lime, eggshells and clay greeted us at the garden. On top was a little pavillion for royal R&Rs.

Friday, January 11, 2008

World's Worst Predator?

Think of sharks and what's the first thing that comes to mind? Man-eaters? "Jaws"? Shark's fin soup? After watching Sharkwater, my perception of these apex predators in the sea changes entirely. And how.

Thanks to my buddy Jason and Howard Shaw (Executive Director of Singapore Environment Council), I had the privilege of catching Rob Stewart's beautifully filmed documentary depicting his life long journey of loving and protecting sharks. An underwater photographer par excellence, Rob captures the magnificent creatures in their natural environment and is seen swimming, cavorting and even hugging the oldest swimming predators on Earth.

What makes this movie especially sobering were the facts that it spewed out such as the following:

- Every year about 5 people die from shark attacks. Contrast that with 100 killed by elephants and tigers, and about 8 million from starvation.

- Sharks can only eat prey that can fit into their mouths. Their dentition (sharp inwards curved teeth) are inefficient for biting off large prey like man.

- As the top predator in the oceans, sharks help to maintain the eco-balance and control the population of plant plankton eating fishes. Phytoplankton is the source of up to 60% of the world's oxygen supply as they take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen during the process of photosynthesis. By killing sharks, we are destroying this balance and accelerating the problem of global warming.

- Shark populations have declined by as much as 90% largely due to the shark finning industry.

- Every year, a hundred million sharks are killed for their fins. In the 90 minutes that I watched the movie, 15,000 sharks have lost their lives.

- One pound of dried shark fin can retail for $300 or more. It's a multi-billion dollar industry. Almost all of it goes to East Asian countries like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and of course Singapore.

Some of the scenes in the movie were painful to watch, especially those capturing the senseless slaughter of sharks which were "finned alive" and thrown back into the ocean left to sink and bleed to death. Often, these victims become fodder themselves for other sharks and fishes - an irony to the king of predators in the oceans.

Others managed to capture the sense of mission, heroism and activism which drove Rob and his friends like Paul Watson, controversial founder of Sea Shepherd Society to undertake dangerous activities. These include stopping and capturing of renegade fishing boats intent on engaging in long-line fishing which is damaging to sharks and other large marine organisms like turtles.

All in all a great movie in the tradition of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth with an even more important message. As an Asian and a consumer of shark's fin, I feel ashamed to be a part of the multi-billion dollar industry. In fact, if you think about it, much of the endangering of species like rhinos, tigers, bears, and whales are driven mostly by the food and purported medicinal uses in Asia.

I have made a silent pledge not to eat shark's fins ever again. They are much better off swimming gracefully in the sea than in my soup bowl, and I don't want to destroy the world for my son.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Tasting the Temple of Heaven

Built during the Ming dynasty period by the Yongle (forever happy) Emperor from 1406 to 1420, the Temple of Heaven (天坛) in Beijing is one of the many must-visit historic sites. An internationally acclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Site (1998), it boasts of a complex of different circular buildings interlinked by a grid of corridors, walkways and pavillions. Surrounded by a beautiful sprawling garden, the taoist temple held great significance for both Beijingers and tourists alike.

A map of the Temple of Heaven showing the extreme care made in ensuring that different building areas are linked by straight grid lines. An interesting fact which I learnt was how the various monumental buildings in Beijing were linked by a grid system.

A cypress tree hugging a pagoda tree, one of the few religiously significant trees in the garden.

The seven star stones depict the different dynasties in China.

Another auspicious tree, this time in the form of a nine-dragon juniper. Don't ask me where the nine dragons are!

A group of seniors and aunties having fun balancing a ball on a bat, twirling and juggling it in poetic grace.

A long corridor measuring 350 metres in length paving the way to the main temple complexes.

More seniors having outdoor fun, this time with a game of cards and chance. It was interesting to note how they enjoyed themselves singing, dancing and playing outside the temple complex. Active ageing in action!

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which is the most widely recognised symbol of the temple.

Naturally, we can't resist a Kodak moment here.

These sacred calves in the temple added an interesting twist to its finely filigreed design and architecture.

The Echo Wall was a popular spot within the temple complex. You can see many people (ourselves included) hollering at the walls hoping to catch an echo and hear each other.

Imperial vault of heaven located within the Echo Wall compound. Notice the circular architecture and characteristic "Chinese straw hat" roof.

Resplendent in hues of green, blue, purple and red with gold trimmings, the temple buildings are a sight to behold.

Just a leisurely stroll away was the Circular Mound which had this Heavenly Centre Stone. It is surrounded by 9 stones in the first ring, 18 stones in the second, all the way till 81 stones in the 9th ring. Those familiar with Chinese tradition will know the significance of 9 (jiu) which stands for longevity.

A nice view from atop the Circular Mound.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Beijing - Ancient City Nestled Amidst Modernity

My recent visit to Beijing helped me understand why everybody is talking about China.

The city is sprawling (3 times the size of Singapore), teeming with people and fighting a battle between keeping its Chinese roots and heritage versus becoming an economic superpower in the global stage. While few can argue against the splendour of its historic sites (more of that later), it is the urban cosmopolitan aspect of Beijing and the sheer massiveness of its buildings, roads and complexes which seem to tower everything else.

When we interacted with the native Beijingians, as well as other Chinese citizens who migrated there for work purposes, we can tell that they do not take things for granted. Life isn't easy in a country of 1.3 billion faced with limited resources, and everybody has to work hard to eke out a living. The monumental structures - both historic and modern - seem to bear witness to the fighting spirit of this city.

Like Singapore, Beijing is surrounded by towering residential buildings or flats. This is the main form of housing in a crowded city with a population of almost 15 million projected this year. Notice the haze and smog, which can be so bad at times that visibility is reduced to 50 m or less.

In contrast, buildings in the old Beijing (Hu Tong) are low rise communal residences with common community spaces, quaint shops and charming alleys.

A shot of the historic Tiananmen Square which is the largest public square in the world.

A city experiencing a huge construction boom, one can see huge towering skyscrapers forming right before one's eyes.

This makes an interesting paradox when one compares them to the royal gardens preserved for posterity, like the Summer Palace here.

At 798 - a disused military factory complex converted to a contemporary arts village - funky contemporary gallery spaces exist.

Some funky "Made in China" statues at Beijing 798, parodying Chinese beliefs in the dragon in a Mao suit.

Another view of skyscrapers in a cluster. We noticed that unlike Singapore, buildings here tend to be much larger and bigger in scale and size.

A modern shopping complex in Beijing. They are as modern and sophisticated as that found in any other city.

A respite from the ultra-modern concrete monoliths in the form of the round pagoda like structure of the Temple of Heaven.

World famous iconic brands like McDonalds and Hard Rock Cafe have made their way into the city.

Security and police officers like this gentleman here is very common in Beijing. So are the numerous cars and vehicles on the road, which plunge into a pollution crisis.

Of course, the winds (though chilling to the bone in winter) do help to clear the air once in a while. One thing is certain though - the city is very crowded and you can see people and vehicles almost at all times of the day.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Experiential Marketing @ Changi Airport

Yes, I am back from my Beijing sojourn together with my family. It was unforgettable and memorable.

On the day of our departure on Christmas Eve, we spent about an hour or so wandering Changi Airport Terminal 2 before leaving on our plane. There, we came across an interesting roadshow cum promotion which the airport was running while celebrating the Christmas season.

I thought that it was quite innovative to encourage travellers to spend more at the various retail and F&B outlets at the airport, while providing a Chrismassy feel through the use of experiential marketing techniques. What makes this special is that it took place at an airport rather than a shopping mall. Increasingly though, airports are repositioning themselves as lifestyle destinations - in fact, the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam has a casino and mortuary in it!

This standee here shows the varied activities that occur in Changi Airport to usher in yuletide cheer. Notice that the main presenting sponsor VISA's logo is prominently displayed.

An entire Santa's Village was created - well maybe a mini version of it - complete with beautifully rendered icons of Christmas.

Here's a closer view of the Christmas tree (which I always loved), complete with a teddy bear, Frosty the Snowman and a reindeer.

Another view of the tree, with a blonde toy angel, building blocks, and a tin soldier.

To add to the spirit of the season, an "elf band" played various Christmas carols and familiar ditties to entertain the kiddies.

A nicely rendered Santa's sleigh complete with reindeers and neon lighting made for a good photo opportunity. Here's Tina and Ethan giving Rudolph a hard time...

...and another shot of Ethan and I riding behind jolly ol' Saint Nick. Better known as Santa Claus to the kids.

Of course, any promotion worth its salt must have a way of attracting people beyond just the titillating their senses. While we loved the nice decor, we had to admit that the lucky draw was also a major factor drawing us here. Well, we did get a cute reindeer designed pencil as a Christmas lucky dip gift.

After checking out Santa's Village, we walked towards our aeroplane, which is Singapore's national carrier and a great way to fly.

Here's Ethan getting all comfy on board the plane, ready for his adventures in the land where Chinese civilisation began. Beijing here we go!