fivetospare

Cheng Chin Yuen

Thursday, October 05, 2006

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Chin Yuen

Saturday, September 30, 2006

20th Sept - Xia Men to Shen Zhen

The nice girl at the guesthouse reception wanted to give us a storybook for our long bus-ride to Shen Zhen but we refused as politely as we could after finding out that the book was a gift from her brother. She belonged to the countless who left school and their poor farming villages early to come to the city to find a job. When there are no guests, she tries to catch up by going through her secondary school textbooks, hoping to pick up where she left off at secondary one. Her future plan is to enrol into a night school when she has the cash.

The 11 hour ride (7.35am to 6.30pm) to Shen Zhen wasn’t bad at all on the sleeper bus which had about 32 double-decker bunks arranged in three rows in a larger than average bus. Surprisingly, the bunks were wide enough and were raised at the head so that you could watch the movie on any of the 4 small TVs without straining your neck. Even more surprisingly, no movies were screened which was a good thing since I was directly in front of on screen and didn’t had any earplugs. All shoes must be taken off and wrapped in a plastic bag before making your way down the two narrow corridors. The bus driver was rightfully very anal about this. Bunk belts were of course optional. His sulky side-kick couldn’t understand why guitars shouldn’t go into the under carriage compartment with the other gigantic suitcases.

Tucked in nice and warm beneath the comforter, I woke up only for lunch which was included in the ticket price. Karen went to settle some serious bowel issues while we were grouped with the other passengers and assigned to a table. There wasn’t much time to get the rice, pick some morsels for Karen and feed myself before the poor starving folks around me wolfed and gobbled down the series of dishes. It didn’t really matter that the fish was mushy, toufu sour and the half chicken, more bone and skin. It all went down their systems in record time and a few had left by the time a very satisfied Karen appeared. Luckily we had our pastry stash back on the bus.

Eager to get on with the journey, I placed my laptop bag on a teeny rack at the foot of my bunk as I removed my shoes. It ended up falling more than a metre onto the floor. What followed was a few seconds of sheer terror till finally, by the combined grace of air-blister padding, a Hedgren bag, SONY’s quality and about 1 centimetre of springy carpeting, my laptop came to life. All was well in the universe. I spent the next four hours writing and developing a tremendous urge to pee. I think having a laptop on your crotch for an extended period of time on a moving vehicle has something to do with it.

As the driver predicted, we were delayed by the jam 30 kilometres outside Shen Zhen. This was not helping at all with the mounting pee problem. I stopped typing and focused on tensing and relaxing the relevant muscles…for a long time.

As most bus trips go, we reached the terminus, I collected my stuff, zoomed to the toilet and opened the floodgates and let out the yellowish litres. You don’t drink too much on a 11 hour ride.

When the LP says that there are no cheap places in Shen Zhen and a bed in the hostel’s dorm costs 60 yuan, the best option are the touts. These networking gurus of the streets never fail to meet at least our tight budget. It’s just a matter of the living conditions. On your part, you need to be realistic about your budget ceiling and bear in mind that these touts deserve a cut from it.

We were lucky this time and our tout was the average guy just trying to make an average living off the streets. ‘60 yuan for two. Bathroom outside no problem. Place must be clean.’

A short walk later, we were in a 25-storey apartment block covered entirely in scaffold and green mesh just next to Shangri La and only 5 minutes from the Metro and airport bus depot. The family in 1405N was watching TV and a little shocked when we barged in and occupied their daughter’s room. True to his word but more of it being their daughter’s room, it was indeed very clean and comfortable. The high heels beneath the TV and her underwear in the closet didn’t bother us too much. It felt more like a home-stay especially when the toilet bowl had a large gaping crack in it and you could see the blue flames of the heater while you showered in a 0.25 square metre space. Everything was functional and that was good enough for us. You couldn’t stand directly in front of the sink because the washing machine was there and somebody’s pants is giving off that familiar smell of stale sweat. I was a good little insight at how the average urbanite lived in Shen Zhen. Give me a HDB flat anytime.

On the way to dinner, we saw a mother sitting on the pavement feeding herself and her baby from a rubbish bin. It could be just a hoax to bring in the yuans of pity like Leper Lady in Beijing. Both mother and child looked quite well nourished.

The long underpass that led to the swanky railway station had the illogical comic relief of India. The half of the pass nearer the station was immaculate, the other end remained in the early 1980s. Standing at the ceramic-concrete borderline you simply laugh and wonder what is this bit of India doing in China.


21st Sept - Shen Zhen to HOME!

Today we saw China’s most ‘jia lat’ beggar lying half naked on one of Shen Zhen’s overhead bridges. At 2.30pm, the concrete surface must have been burning but he lay flat on his chest with both crutches under his armpits. His taut waxy skin suggest some horrible history of severe burns or perhaps and acid attack. But it was his eyes that made everyone give him a wide berth the instant they saw them. His eyelids flared outwards most unnaturally, adding deep red bloody rings around his enlarged monster-like eyes.

At the stalls in Dong Men Market, do not pay more than half the quoted price and the ‘walk away’ technique always gets the salesgirl running after you. It is really amazing how desperate for a sale they are and how cheaply things can be produced here. Karen did her shopping while I shopped for more patience. At one tea complex, I found out that the price of tea could range from 40 to about 1000 yuan per kg!

Karen was done with her shopping too quickly and we had too much time to kill. We toyed with the idea of watching ‘The Banquet’ but the 35 yuan ticket suggested that we wait for the DVD. The evening show costs 65 yuan. Instead we washed the heat down at McDonald’s with hot chocolate and hot fudge sundae. When it is this hot, you succumb.

As we walked to catch the airport bus, I think about the last seafood dinner we could have enjoyed in China if we hadn’t blown all our cash on shopping. But our friends back home needed presents or they wouldn’t be our friends.

We left for the airport early, ate some KFC and took the Tiger Airways flight back home. Nothing out of the ordinary except for one announcement apologising for a delay in our flight. It went ‘Dear passengers, we forgot to tell you that due to a problem with the aircraft (and therefore no fault of the airport) flight TR951 to Singapore has been delayed. The flight is now scheduled form 2300 to 2305.’ These guys are serious about every minute.

Final verdict after 79 days in China : Go to India.

18th Sept - Gu Lang Yu to Xia Men

Feeling that I have missed a fair bit of the old houses, I woke up at 6am to attempt to photograph old Gu Lang Yu in one and a half hours. It was nice and quiet and the old folks were just returning home from their morning stroll and exercise. Compared to Xia Men, Gu Lang Yu must be really an ideal place to stay. People here don’t spit and litter so much.

Xia Men is generally boring except for the old and narrow side streets saturated with gambling dens, brothels, adult shops, barbers, tiny eateries, printing firms, cramped dwellings and the local seafood market. These radiate out form the most liveless pedestrianised street in China. Every other major city has beautified their central mall here, you can still see the arrows and lane markings on the road that ran through the street. The famous peanut soup here tastes similar to the canned ones you can get off the shelves at NTUC.

I rarely lose track of time but I had the impression that today was the 19th and we that had only two more days left in China when we had three. I had already bought our bus tickets to Shen Zhen the next morning but we decided we would rather spend an extra day in Xia Men than in Shen Zhen. So we returned to the bus station to change the tickets surprisingly without any hassle or having to explain ourselves. Everyone is allowed only one switch which makes perfect sense.

We ended the day early by watching Stephen Chows ‘Guo(2) Can(3) 007’ a real classic in our room.


19th Sept - Xia Men

Xia Men University looks more like a park with the lake and lawns. The red brick hostels resemble a massive laundry house with shirts, shorts and underwear hanging along the corridors on every floor. The well-lighted air-conditioned quads do not match the China hostel horror stories. Each undergraduate has a computer terminal beneath his bed, a cupboard and a locker. Some sleep on mats instead of mattresses. The busy canteen is cashless and the variety of food looks healthy. There are quite a number of foreign students here including a few from the Philippines. There are also 10 basketball courts in the sports corner.

While Karen went to MSN, I walked and re-walked the seafood market taking photographs of the dazzling spread. Returning to the main street. A large crowd was gathered Mei Zhen Xiang bak kua shop not for the bak kua but to watch a street warden argue with a guy on a bicycle. The two had been fighting and had suffered cuts and bruises but the funny thing was an old traumatised lady who had witnessed the whole drama had been called in to be the judge. No that what she said mattered, the two blokes and their gathering mass of supporters argued on. These uniformed street wardens weren’t the police, their main duty was to get people off their bicycles on the main street.

I had my farewell haircut in one tunnel saloon. For 7 yuan, I came out with a short squarish crop, looking like any Chinese fella.


Closing in


non-competitors


inking


What happens when you squeeze the shell.


Here's the plan...


Fish Carpet


shiny happy people


Head or Tails?


What's the light for?


One face in the crowd


Scallops


plastic surgery


Clam seller


Gleaming


Bird Fever


Could be KL


Market Street


classic relic


raise the red lantern


Captain Planet


So small you couldn't miss it


Street Drama


Nap Anywhere


Make way


NUS also dun have


Hostel Life


Xia Men University, admin block


Better than a Harley


View from our guesthouse in Xia Men


Hand powered sewing machine


Some part of the duck


Community Centres

16th Sept - Yong Ding to Xia Men to Gu Lang Yu

On the bus, we met a lady who wanted to buy a house in Xia Men. Her daughter was graduating soon from the university in Fu Zhou and intended to find work here.

’No way is she going back to Yong Ding where we originally came from. She will not be able to get used to the life back there so we are moving here where the land prices are cheaper (compared to Fu Zhou). By the way, while you are in Xia Men try the freshly made green bean pastry.’

In China, chances are that after graduation, you will be absorbed into the city where the pay-roll is. Mum, Dad and family could be miles away and therefore not economically viable to visit. Aren’t you happy Raffles Place is only 40 minutes away from Jurong East?

China’s jolliest bus driver and conductor told us which bus to catch to get to the Gu Lang Yu ferry. The problem was that there were three ferry terminals spaced about 200 metres apart opposite the picturesque island famous for its collection of old houses. In such boggling situations we thought it was wise to head for the one with the sign ‘Gu Lang Yu’ above it.

16 yuan got us a return trip and the dubious 1 yuan safety insurance China so often slaps her commuters with. We hopped on the crowded ferry, watched the metal gates slide shut and the golden dragon’s head on the bow in front of us get smaller and smaller as we chugged not towards but around Gu Lang Yu. Not too bad, at least we are getting a free tour of Gu Lang Yu thrown in.

The moment the moorings were released, an excited candid commentary was unleashed at machine gun speed. Targeted at all the developments and attractions in the foggy distance, it was a most successful lure to get the tourists on board to part with 10 yuan for the binoculars rental so that they could see things like the Xia Men bridge, oil refineries, waterfront housing development, sea birds and the island features through blurry lenses. The crowd fell for the ruse and the business-savy boatmen made at least an additional 200 bucks! From the sea, the cable cars, central lookout, green-water beaches and colourful crowds of Gu Lang Yu looked worryingly like Sentosa.

For reasons unknown to us, our ferry dropped us at the furthest possible jetty from the main settlement area. You knew where the centre was because the island’s only McDonalds was there looming above the Visitor Centre which didn’t hand out any free maps of the island. You had to buy them from the touts outside or photograph them from the boards.

After ten hot minutes, we realised that Gu Lang Yu (which is much smaller than Sentosa) wasn’t Sentosa. It was what Sentosa should aspire to become. The only vehicles on the island are the electric buggies which the truly lazy will pay 50 yuan to circumnavigate the little island. You could do the same trip on foot in an hour and a half. Supplies, construction materials and tourist baggage are piled on two-wheeled carts and pulled across the island by sunburnt coolies. Under one shady corner, one guy belts out old Chinese numbers to an electric guitar-erhu accompaniment. His repertoire so he claims is 600 songs wide! More importantly, there is a vibrant resident population here thriving on tourism and serving up an amazing variety of excellent and reasonably priced seafood dishes. Most importantly, these friendly folks who still manage to remain friendly despite the daily influx tourists are housed in a lovely chaotic clutter of colonial houses oozing with heritage and history!

An overenthusiastic tout fond us some decent accommodation at a small guesthouse tucked away in a small street three minutes away from the main area. The first place he led us to was cheaper and more rustic but unfortunately couldn’t accept foreigners as we only found out after some light bargaining and room inspection. Still it is wiser not to declare your nationality at the beginning if you want to be given a discount. Like the lady in Yong Ding, the owner of this place refused to take a risk and take us in despite the stiff competition. Perhaps the feared authorities are vigilant enough to sweep the tangle of small streets often enough.

After a good lunch of cheap noodles (yet another impossibility on Sentosa), Karen returned to the room to crash while I explored the main district for a while. One thing you would notice in China is that some locals tend to place a sheet of paper or tissue between their butt and whatever they are sitting on. You can guess what happens when they leave. Not much of a problem actually, they are just doing their part to keep one of the many long-broom sweepers busy.

I also found the pleasant Youth Hostel with free WiFi which didn’t pay touts any commission. Facing the main jetty, walk 150 metres to your right. It’s hidden behind some buildings on a small hill to your left.

If you are into colonial architecture check out the Visitor Centre which features all the buildings on the island with historical value. There is also a scale model of the entire island and the ‘interactive touch screen booths’ so often found in Singapore.

Karen was still concussed so I had a good dinner of beef, clams (hua1 ge2) and kong(1) xin(1) cai(4) the most widely available vegetable in China. The purple coloured loaf stuffed with red beans we had for supper was uniquely Gu Lang Yu.

17th Sept - Gu Lang Yu

Today we did the usual tourist thing beginning with a horrible breakfast of the cheapest noodles you could find on the island – only 2 yuan – and therefore horrible, what were we expecting?

A big net was draped over part of the island. Some birds got stuck, some got thrown in and you wind up with Gu Lang Yu’s ‘100 species Aviary’. He crowd loved the bird show where poor manacled parrots and cockatoos get blasted with techno music while doing stupid things like riding mini-bicycles and picking up trash but the highlight for me were two giant yellow hornbills. They look mighty miserable behind the black mesh of their separate enclosure.

From the aviary, we took a cable car across the valley to Sunlight Rock. Yes, and the Chinese do make life exciting here by taking off the window panes to make the 3 minute ride more thrilling. It’s been years since I brought 2T1 to Sentosa, played the role of the life-guard while they swam and somersault in the lagoon, took them for their first walk in on forest trail and paid for their cable car ride back to mainland. Boy was I rich then. Here on the dangle to Sunlight Rock, I loved the exposure but not the colour of the sea here! Take off all the windows on the cabs at Faber and market it as an extreme sport.

Sunlight Rock at noon should be called Sunburn Rock. The huge outcrop right smack in the centre of the island has been converted into THE lookout point all self-respecting tourists on Gu Lang Yu must make their pilgrimage to. It looked so commercialised and we intended to give it a miss but our tickets to the Aviary included the cable car ride and admission into Sunlight Rock so go with the flow.

Thousands of tourists cannot be wrong and the 360 view on the tiny concrete viewing deck was fantastic especially the cityscape of Xia Men with the characteristic mess of Gu Lang Yu’s red rooftops in the foreground. There was also a sign here near the cliff’s edge that read ‘Caution, Drop Down!’

We made our way down to the small cove to confirm that the beaches at Sentosa was a better place to take a dip. There are more container ships and oil tankers berthed here but a fair number of locals were splashing about in the green waters just next to the speedboat landing zone. We gave up and went to scout for a decent seafood restaurant for tonight.

It’s easy to be convinced of the quality when two and a half dozen bubbling basins of prawn, clams, fish, crab and eels are on display outside the restaurants. At one joint, one friendly guy answered all our questions about some of the weirder live-forms on display and we promised to be back for dinner. He told us that he has seen many Singaporean tourists and they come with a grossly wrong assumption that China was a poor country and that Xia Men and Gu Lang Yu was going to be cheap. They wind up complaining and being unreasonable in their bargaining. He also noticed that we are very careful with our expenditure unlike the bingeing locals. We told him that most Singaporeans did not eat as much but preferred to spend the dough shopping. In his nice humble way, he was trying to tell us not to belittle China especially Xia Men which is ranked amongst her wealthiest cities.

The local laksa is not spicy and is filled with shrimps, squid, small oysters and fried toufu. Looks overrates the taste a tad though.

We found The Tunnel after lunch. It’s like an old CTE burrowing right through the island. Flat, cool, clean, lighted and about 800 metres long it is a wonderfully simple feature and a much appreciated shortcut for the cart coolies. But you can trust the Chinese to squeeze in a Terracotta Warrior museum somewhere in the middle!

There is always McDonalds after hours in the sun and there is always the regret after the first bite into the quarter-pounder. They used cucumbers instead of pickles and a synthetic-looking pink mustard to be washed down by the chemical caramel coffee that came with it! MacYuck! One lady in the corner was having some serious makeup done by her friend using the polished metal casing of the fire hydrant as a makeshift mirror!

We next headed for what was to become our favourite attraction on the island – The Underwater World. The seal and dolphin show was passable but the live specimens rivalled ours in Sentosa. Among the more interesting are Japanese spider crabs which had incredibly complicated mouth structure, the oddball cow fish, seaweed-like sea dragons, the grim stone fish, the giant grouper, the scary-then-funny sturgeons (they looked like they had banged their noses into the wall!), the entire cast of Finding Nemo and my personal favourite the feather-finned Lionfish. The specimens are exceptionally impressive as there is always a fair number of them in the clear tanks. I think there were 6 or 7 Lionfishes! Power!

The dead specimens included the ghastly ‘Eat Man Fish’ or piranhas floating in formaldehyde with the help of nylon strings. Of course some mouths were prised open to reveal the rows of incisors! The main selling point is a 232 18 meter full skeleton of a sperm whale. It is the largest in the world. A sensationalised video captures the emotional retrival, chopping up and transporting of the skeleton to Xia Men. Tears were flowing as they plunged their chainsaws in the massive carcass and two professional knife sharpeners were hired. It looked like every Xiamener was involved.

The bones were reassembled and the resultant skeleton perfect. They went a step further to ‘bring the whale back to life’ by creating a live-sized model of it! The pros say that Mr Big died from a fracture in his ninth vertebra. Maybe kena knock by one of the hundred tankers out there.

The finale was the shark tank whose inhabitants were not as diverse as ours.

Thus inspired, we went to fulfil our promise of a seafood dinner - undisputedly the highlight of the day. Two huge prawns sliced down the middle and laced with garlic and super fresh red snapper. Too bad for us the Jap crab wasn’t in the basin.

Friday, September 29, 2006


chainsaw


ok understand


fool on the hill


backalley blues


leave us ALONE


3rd little piggy


no smashing


reminder


dirty laundry


early morning


what would you do with a hexagon?


LifeSign


mum forever


Cart Rules


Nice to leave the branch alone


The Nurse


Mr Lonely


Jap Spider Crab closeup