Massive artificial trees, beautiful orchid gardens, clubbing till late and learning about Singapore from students and labmates--this week was a blast.
Even without leaving the city, Singapore continues to offer many places, treats and events to stimulate the senses. From encountering a random Tintin shop in Chinatown to seeing beautiful, lighted kites fill the evening sky, this city never ceases to amaze. Here is a small glimpse at the fourth week in one of the Four Asian Tigers.
Gardens by the Bay
Singapore has a habit of...overdoing things. Gardens by the Bay is a fabulous example of this, having just opened on July 1st. It is a billion dollar endeavor to give Singapore another attraction to draw tourists and delight locals. We stopped by on Friday night and a band was playing on a stage setup in the Supertree Grove, which is a series of gigantic structures that look like trees and seems straight out of Star Wars or something. It looks quite stunning at night.
But in contrast to this artificial grandeur is the pathetic waste like the fake stalagmite exhibit. Having actually visited caves in my time, the fact that they forgot to even make them look wet is a bit insulting, but many locals will be none-the-wiser. There are several domes (e.g. the Flower Dome) that are for-pay (to enter the general park is free) and we didn't go, but I'll probably return as many of the more exotic trees are located there.
While at the park, we also noticed dragons and other things flying in the sky off in the distance. After talking to some locals, it appears that this is for the Marina Barrage, where people often fly kites. I guess in the movie The Kite Runner, they would play a game where you put glass on the string of your kite and try to cut other people's kites out of the sky. Well, apparently the older generation in Singapore did just that. Sounds awesome. I might try it.
The Botanic Gardens are located near its namesake MRT stop. It is a rather beautiful and quaint little area and stands in contrast to the grandeur of the more recent Gardens by the Bay. This might have to do with its much older roots, having been originally conceived in 1822 by Sir Stamford Raffles and opened officially several decades later. Wandering through on a Saturday afternoon you could gaze at the wondrous arrangement of flowers, trees and other plants. We initially headed toward the Healing Garden, which contains a network of different sub-areas devoted to plants that can cure ailments affecting particular body systems (think nervous, intestinal, etc.). It was rather cool, but our real destination was the National Orchid Garden.
Well, if there is anything learned from our time in Singapore, things don't always go according to plan. We chanced upon the Evolution Garden where they try to re-create different time periods in Earth's history (think a sub-area focused solely on ferns). It was pretty cool and afterwards we wandered through a small patch of rainforest, complete with those gnarly trees that don't seem to have a real trunk. After a bit more wandering, we happened upon the National Orchid Garden.
The Orchid Garden is quite nice and reminds me of Dr. Fernando Ramos's collection of orchids--he was the professor that hosted me in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He spent a lot of time taking care of them as they are apparently very delicate and prone to die at even the slightest temperature variation. We wandered past blood-red flowers that smelled sweet as perfume and into the Cool House, which contained several interesting plants, such as the carnivorous pitcher plant. In another area of the garden, I finally got a name for the plant with the image of another plant on its leaves, the peacock plant or calathea makoyana. There were an abundance of other sights, if you visit Singapore, you must go.
The Botanic Gardens is an amazing journey filled with all sorts of plants (I only named a very small number of the hundreds we saw), some even had leaves the size of people! It is best to go on the weekends or when you have at least fourt hours or so to spare if you want a good experience.
Finally got to play tennis in Singapore and quickly realized that not playing for several months and playing right after waking up is not a good combination. However, Ian and the rest I played with were in good spirits. We initially tried to play on the courts near SUTD, but they were locked so we went over to NUS, one of the larger universities in Singapore. SUTD doesn't have any tennis courts of its own at the moment, they will at their new campus but that won't happen for two or three years. Anyways, NUS had many tennis courts so we were able to slip in and play for a couple hours. It was quite refreshing; though, I still haven't gotten used to the thick air and heat here, I was sweating like a lion in a sauna. While the match-play never reach this level, it was still a blast nonetheless. We'll probably play again next week.
I asked Ian during play about Singapore's tennis environment and he said they have their own league, called the STA. Malays and Indonesians are allowed to play in the league. Ian is hoping to start a club at SUTD and I've been giving him pointers from lessons learned playing at MIT and at my high school. I'm also trying to get him to sell the club as a social and athletic club, much like some tennis clubs in the USA, so he can more easily attract people who might not play otherwise. I look forward to seeing how it progresses.
This week features a sampling of food I was able to try and some recommendations made to me by locals. From the delicious combination of chicken and rice to the sweet taste of Ondeh Ondeh, let's take a look at the various delights that Singapore has to offer.
We have had the habit of giving into Western food (read McDonald's or Wendy's) when we are tired and just want some quick calories. At Orchard road we almost did just that, but ended up at Food Opera, a hawker centre in ION Orchard. It was there I finally had nasi lemak, a pretty good dish with rice, fish, beans and some other tidbits. But more importantly, I encountered monin soda/syrup, a delicious bubbling drink with your flavor of choice, in my case passion fruit and strawberry. It is somehow better than just going home and combining sprite and a fruit drink (I tried later that night just to check, haha).
Bengawan Solo is a local store that happens to sell different types of Kueh, which are sweets associated mainly with Malaysia or Southeast Asia. They can be all assortment of things, from small cakes to Ondeh Ondeh, which Adrian (one of my labmates) gave me. It has coconuts on the outside and when you bite into the green rice flour, it is a bit surprising as it is quite chewy. They also have pineapple tarts, which are exactly as the name implies and are nice and sweet. While not sold at Bengawan Solo to my knowledge, I did have poppadums, which are a spicy Indian chip/cracker.
Coconut, panda flour and deliciousness, the perfect Malaysian dessert. image source.
Maxwell is a hawker centre near the Chinatown stop. It took us a little longer to get there due to a detour through another district, during which we encountered the Tintin Singaporestore. It was pretty cool, but will have to visit another time. We also came across a camera store with a sign reading Honey I shrunk the camera! and a tiny camera below it, pretty neto. Anyways, we found the hawker centre and ordered some Chinese chicken rice, which was basically exactly as described, but the rice was a little bit more flavoured.
Roti plata was once again in order and served with a delicious chicken curry. Lisa bought some Cendol to share. It is quite tasty, even if it looks a bit iffy at firsy glance. It is made of milk, rice flour, sugar, shaved ice and some other ingredients. The one we had at Maxwell was sweet, but not in an overpowering way. Heading over to 313@Somerset, we skimmed by Food Republic and put on pouty faces when a store there didn't have any mango pomelo sago (a chilled mango soup served as a dessert) left. Next time.
Old Airport Road is a popular hawker centre in Singapore. Adrian told me to go there and get bean curd or tau huay (the Singapore/Malay name for it). It is a tofu pudding that is served as a dessert. Kaya toast is another popular food made from kaya (a fruit curd), eggs, sugar and several other ingredients on toasted bread. And then there is chicken biryani, which is a sub-dish in the biryani family of dishes, which normally consists of rice, meat and some vegetables. Chicken karaage is japanese dish I recently had with fried chicken that is then coated in wheat and taste quite crunchy and good.
Singapore is experiencing the rise of more and more restaurants as a more expensive alternative to the cheap (but awesome!) hawker centres. No Signboard is a seafood restaurant chain with places near the Esplanade and Aljunied MRT stops. Din tai fung is a famous restaurant that serves among other things, really good dumplings. In addition, there is Master Crab near the Buangkok serves some really great chili crab, which is a popular local delicacy, but it is sometimes hard as a tourist to find places that don't ripoff tourists.
While roadblocks continue to appear on the project-side of my labwork, talking with others in the lab has been a constant source of information about Singapore and various other topics. Sarah Woodgate, a member of Ian's lab, recently completed a marathon in Queensland, Australia. After the race, she had several days before returning and was also able to visit the Great Barrier Reef in a seaplane. She said the pilot did a couple of quick touchdowns on the water with it. Brisbane was also a place visited and she seemed to like her time in Australia. I look forward to visiting Sydney at the end of July!
While chatting with Ian, I learned a bit more about the world, as always. He described problems with some types of chemotherapy that lead to Palmar-Plantar Erythrodysesthesia. We also got on the topic of AI and the recent paradigm shift that some are pushing for, namely to move beyond just replicating real behaviour to actually modeling the underlying reason why that behavior occurs. This lead to discussion about Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal. Apparently there is a Singularity Institute, whose goal is to research when and how humans and AI will merge. It is always interesting to hear about stuff like this, in part because it always seems a bit wacky at first, but the deeper you dig, the more food-for-thought appears.
Singapore continues to open up and reveal more about itself as the weeks roll by. While riding with Ian I asked about how lawyers are general viewed and it seems like their reputation in the USA is not different here: they are viewed as parasites. But it appears that their roll has changed: they are less politically active now than they were in the 1970s (when the government saw them as a threat) and this has been reflected in who they admit. The government itself seems to be creating an interesting brain drain problem for itself by leeching the best minds from the private sector to government posts are low-risk, safe jobs. This leads to a risk-adverse society. Additionally, years of schooling and other people telling these smart, newly appointed officials how great they are makes them less willing to take risks or do things differently. This is reflected in the subdued entrepreneurial culture in Singapore. Also, the government also likes to make some interesting rules, among them the requirement that those under seventeen must be in or with a parent after 11 p.m. or they can be questioned.
While asking Ian about the importation of biological material, he noted that it costs a lot of money to do so and that customs was quite finnicky. Often times distributors would wait several weeks until they had a full plane before shipping and may not include the necessary information for the items to clear customs rapidly. Hence it is sometimes necessary to actually send a note to customs with the material safety or other documents to allow timely delivery. Because Singapore is a small country, it also can't import or create a lot of the Big Science that we see in the USA or Europe. They send several scientist abroad to places like CERN so they can take advantage of the resources already avaliable.
While asking about some food, Adrian told me about Peranakans, who are descendent's of Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago. They are sometimes a mix of Malay and Chinese and have their own style of food. It is a blend of Malaysian spices and Chinese cooking, leading to a taste that is both spicy and more subdued.
Singapore has an IKEA, which is exactly like all the others you find around the world. More interestingly, they have a store called Courts that functions like a mix of IKEA, Best Buy and Walmart.
The leadership session during week four involved the MIT students splitting into groups to help the SUTD students tackle problems in specific areas: athletics, research, arts and music, student government and many others. I was assigned to help the athletic clubs and each SUTD student represented a different sport : Marvin, cycling; Vera, badmiton; JX, netball; Xulu, billards; Aaron, volleyball; and Ian, tennis. We went over different recruitment strategies, using Prof. Saif Benjaafar's presentation at the beginning to guide us. He is a systems engineer from University of Minnesota who moved to SUTD to help them start their engineering systems and design pillar. He gave a good speech on the strategies he employed to recruit faculty members at UMN to the new department he founded there. While talking with the SUTD students about their recruitment strategies, it became apparent we needed to focus them on out-of-the-box solutions to their funding and membership problems, such as re-branding the time commitment and who they went to for funds. Overall it was a good discussion and I think they got a lot out of it. I also learned about sepak takraw, a volleyball variant played in Southeast Asia where you can use all other body parts but your hands to play. We saw it on a TV while in Melaka, so it's good to finally know what it is.
Being Americans, we necessarily needed to celebrate Independence Day, i.e. Fourth of July. We bought loads of ketchup, burger patties, buns, hotdogs, watermelons and other foods/drinks often found at such celelbrations. Grills apparently are not a thing here, so we made some janky ones out of aluminum foil. This didn't spoil the fun and when I arrive the smell of meat filled the air and the watermelons were as juicy as ever. We played pick-up soccer with the SUTD kids before trying to play American Football. This didn't work out quite as planned, it is somewhat difficult to disgorge people here from thinking that football equals rugby. As an aside, a week or so ago we looked up the origin story of American football, soccer and rugby. It appears that we (Americans) have good reason to call soccer by that name, given the true name is Association football and people at Oxford created the name soccer by combining the soc in association with -er, a popular suffix around 1890s. Because the United States had been playing American football in universities (think Princeton) throughout the 1800s, we needed to use another name and borrowed this one instead of creating two sports with the same name. Back to the main thread, we had a couple water fights (there was a hose and plastic bags filled with water to subsitute as water ballons) and played Ultimate and several other sports. The celebrations ended with the USA national anthem and it seems like everyone enjoyed themselves.
Butter Factory was quite nice; though, I happy I don't drink as the prices at all clubs are outrageous.
We went to the Butter Factory again, this time with our employment passes so we could actually get in. The club has two areas: Fash and Bump. Bump was a little bit better, it had a larger dance floor but the techno/house music played in Fash was quite nice. Once again, the Americans had to get things started as people seem to shy away from being the first ones on the dance floor. Also, Fash's walls had several images, many of which I knew, such as this one on my website. Crazy!
Zirca was in order once again Saturday night (they had a promotion to get in cheap) and it seems that we had to get things started again. The DJ wasn't as good as last time, but dancing to pounding beats along with a room full of people never gets old. However, I'd advise not visiting the same club again or going during promotions, for some reason it is never as good as the first time.
Until next week (we'll be in Bali!)...