Singapore is a favourite destination with our family and not least because of Sentosa Island, recently re-branded by the Singapore government as ‘The State of Fun’ and this week host to no less than Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
Although these days it’s billed as Singapore’s top holiday resort and home to monster chunks of family entertainment, Sentosa has not always been synonymous with family fun.
Formerly known as ‘Pulau Belakang Mati’, or ‘island of death from behind’, it was once a pirate hang-out and later became a brutal prisoner of war (POW) camp for Australian and British POWs during World War II, following the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942.
In the 1970s Sentosa was renamed, rebranded and polished up for the tourist market. It is now home to 17 hotels, two golf courses, and a plethora of major attractions.
While Kim and Don will be enjoying the luxurious five-star Capella Hotel for their meeting, our firm family favourite is the Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa Resort, where we have spent many a happy holiday. There’s a great outdoor pool, mini kids waterpark, active kids club and a beautiful terrace breakfast restaurant (a popular conference hotel, it’s just so luxurious being able to watch the ‘suits’ plod off to a day’s meetings while we linger over a second stack of pancakes and another coffee – we can only guess how Kim and Don will be feeling about their own buffet breakfasts this morning, Mr Kim at the St Regis and Donald at the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, both near to major Singapore shopping hub Orchard Road).
The Rasa also offers a regular shuttle service over the bridge to the ever-popular Vivo City shopping mall on the mainland. Family restaurants of note here include Jamie’s Italian and the Queen and Mangosteen – think British pub grub with lashings of classic English puds. The shopping is good with a handful of British stores that have not yet made it to Hong Kong.
Back on Sentosa, there is an incredibly handy free shuttle bus service that picks up from the Rasa and continually loops around the island. The island is also great cycling territory as the roads are quiet, wide and flat and there are plenty of hire bikes available, including ofo and Mobike (just download the app and you’re good to go).
A 67-million-year-old dinosaur was unveiled in Hong Kong today – in the incongruous confines of one of the city’s glitzier shopping malls.
But whether you love or loathe the location for the ‘Meet The T REX’ exhibition, IFC Mall’s Oval Atrium offers plenty of soaring space, not to mention a huge footfall of people each day.
Hued in a rosy glow from surrounding lighting, the 12-metre long Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil has been brought to Hong Kong from Germany for its first ever ‘tour’. The remains were originally discovered in Northwestern Dakota in the US and were excavated and assembled between 2010 and 2014.
The fossil stands at four metres tall, dominating the surrounding coffee and cosmetics outlets, and weighs a staggering two tonnes.
According to Dr Michael Pittman, who leads the Vertebrate Palaeontology Laboratory at the University of Hong Kong (HKU)’s Department of Earth Sciences, and was officiating at the event launch, Tyrannosaurus Rex was a formidable carnivore.
“It’s jaws were the most powerful ever known, more powerful than a Great White shark or a lion, and its teeth were the largest of any carnivorous dinosaur. It could demolish its prey with ease; even digested bones have been found in coprolite (fossilised faeces) samples.” And contrary to how the T Rex is popularly portrayed in movies, it would have been covered in bird-like feathers rather than scales.
While IFC’s guest visitor would have lived on the north American continent, dinosaur discoveries have also been made in parts of China. However, in Hong Kong findings are so far confined to fossilised fish, some of which date back to the Late Jurassic period, around 147 million years ago.
The Pok Fu Lam-based Department of Earth Sciences at HKU has a small museum of fossilised remains, but as yet there is no dedicated permanent exhibition space in Hong Kong for paleontological exhibits. “The Science Museum recently hosted a temporary exhibition (‘Legends of the Giant Dinosaurs’, which closed in April) and the public is welcome to visit our little display at HKU on weekdays, but yes, obviously a permanent exhibition space is something we would love to see here,” said Dr Pittman.
Highlights of ‘Meet The T Rex’ include a 65 million-year-old thigh bone which the public is free to touch as well as interactive exhibits spread throughout the mall.
Escaping the kids and the rat-race, former Hong Kong interiors consultant Elisha Rickward joined a Creative Immersion Retreat to the Greek island of Lemnos last year.
“It’s hard to put into words the magic that was Lemnos – although I did take away a heap of photos as it was an absolute visual feast,” says Rickward of the trip, which was part of a curated tour organised by Australian-based travel company, Mediterranean Wanderer.
“An amazing group of women came together from all over the world and over five days, we were treated to a smorgasbord of wonderful activities and workshops.”
The tour was led by Mediterranean Wanderer founder, Paula Hagiefremidis, who is in the throes of putting together a ‘Food, Writing and Creative Escape’ back to Greece and the island of Serifos in the western Cyclades this autumn.
Relaxing, restorative and highly enjoyable, the tours were first put together when Hagiefremidis hit a low point emotionally a few years ago. “I had got to a point where I wasn’t doing what truly made me happy,” she says. “I was running a very successful Japanese restaurant which myself and my husband had started from scratch. It was doing enormously well but I wasn’t content.”
So she decided to ease herself out of her comfort zone and follow her heart – “which was daunting, I was terrified” – and set up a series of writing retreats to Greece.
“There are two significant reasons for picking Greece. Firstly, although I was born in Australia I have Greek heritage and spent countless childhood summers in Greece. I speak, read and write Greek, as my parents insisted I attend Greek school after my normal school hours. This was agonising as a child but now I can’t thank my parents enough – I couldn’t imagine visiting Greece today and not being able to immerse myself as a local. Secondly, I wanted to give participants a unique experience, taking them right away from everyday life. The purpose of the retreats is for participants to feel restored, nurtured and inspired and the environment was always going to play a huge part in this,” she says.
The islands are carefully selected to suit the style of course being offered, Hagiefremidis explaining that each one has its own charm. “It’s important people get to experience the authentic side of Greece, to meet the artisan producers, to sample the produce and to experience the warmth of Greek hospitality,” enthuses Hagiefremidis.
Groups are purposefully kept small – no more than 10 people for the retreat this coming September – to allow participants to form stronger connections with each other. She stresses that although the tour has a writing component, no prior skills are needed, it is merely the vehicle for people to enhance their creativity.
“The retreats are as much for aspiring creatives who want to further their passion as they are for those who are feeling stuck and in need of direction and inspiration. Last year this was achieved through photography and styling, but the majority of women who attended were neither one nor the other. This year it will be all about using writing and our daily travels across the island to enhance, reflect and connect with what’s important to you. It’s also a chance to connect with an inspiring group of likeminded women.”
Along with the workshops, there will also be the chance to swim the aquamarine seas, share delicious meals, with a little bit of ‘Zorba dancing’ thrown in.
This autumn, participants will be staying in two private Cycladic-style seaside villas. Guests can opt for a private room or shared accommodation and each bedroom has its own bathroom. There will be day trips around the island, both by road and by boat, as well as meet-ups with local artisans and freshly cooked local-style meals. “The schedule is all about allowing a balance of activities to both restore and inspire, as well as developing creative and personal pursuits. A full schedule is available on the company website.
“Paula’s love of Greece was very apparent,” commented Rickward at the end of her retreat. “Her enthusiasm was infectious. We climbed mountains (literally and figuratively), set up a styling shoot in a local town, picked wildflowers, danced with the locals under the stars and swam in the beautiful Aegean Sea. My time on Lemnos with a bunch of inspiring women was a true life highlight and one I’m hoping to repeat someday.”
For further information about this September’s retreat, ‘A Food, Writing & Creative Escape’, see mediterraneanwanderer.com Or contact founder and host Paula Hagiefremidis directly at email@example.com
Is this the next Crazy Rich Asians?! Expat mum-of-two Stephanie Suga Chen is the author brand new book, Travails of a Trailing Spouse. She tells Carolynne Dear what prompted her to put pen to paper
So what’s it all about?
The story begins with Sarah, a lawyer in the US, quitting her job and moving to Singapore with her husband and children. They become part of a close-knit group of expatriates, enjoying alcohol-fuelled evenings together. But when cracks appear in this seemingly perfect world, Sarah and her friends discover how complicated life can be.
How long did it take you to write?
The answer usually shocks people! It took me about five weeks – I wrote a chapter a night. I think I just had it all pent up inside me, ready to flow out. Editing, well, that’s a whole other story – I think that took five months.
Have you always been a writer, or is this a shift from a previous career?
It was a complete shift; I left my career in finance when we decided to move to Singapore in 2012. Although one of my goals had been to possibly find a new career for myself, I admit it took longer than I had expected. I spent about four years floundering quite a bit – lots of yoga, lunches and volunteering until I discovered writing.
How was the writing process?
I wrote everywhere – at home, on the MRT, at school waiting for the kids. And I used many different media – laptop, phone, scribbles on a scrap of paper.
How much of the story is autobiographical?
This is everyone’s favourite question. It did start as a memoir, but I found it a lot more fun to fictionalize it. So if you’re wondering, the juicier bits are probably made up. Although I’ve heard many readers say “I know that exact person!”
Why do you think expats often struggle despite their comfortable lifestyles?
Although the novel centres around expat life, the problems that the characters face are not necessarily unique to trailing spouses. I think the journey of self-discovery applies to anyone at a crossroads in life; it just happens to have a more exotic setting – similar to Eat, Pray, Love.
What would you say are the best and the worst bits of being an expat?
For me, I would say the best is having my children experience diversity on a daily basis. The worst is definitely being away from family and friends, although that can sometimes be a good thing, too – being shielded from the stressful, Christmas holiday period is one example that springs to mind.
Any downsides to life in Singapore?
The unyielding heat takes quite a bit of getting used to.
What would be your advice to expats moving to Singapore?
Three things: 1) The fight against mold is real, 2) Enjoy every moment, 3) Read my book!
Do you have any plans for a follow-up novel?
I have several projects in the pipeline, and I’ve already collected dozens of stories for a possible sequel. If you’ve got any of those ‘too crazy to be true’ expat stories, please do send them my way!
Travails of a Trailing Spouse by Stephanie Suga Chen is published by Straits Times Press and is available internationally from stpressbooks.com.sg.
Local charity Mother’s Choice has been helping vulnerable teens and their babies for over 30 years. Carolynne Dear met with chief exec Alia Eyres
It takes passion and it takes great heart to successfully lead a charity and Alia Eyres, who heads up local non-government organisation Mother’s Choice, has these character attributes in bucketloads.
The organisation celebrated its pearl anniversary last year, an impressive thirty year history of helping one of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable sectors of society – abandoned babies and pregnant teens.
Last year alone, the charity provided 150 young children and babies with temporary care and 58 were placed with permanent families; its outreach programme offered over 10,000 young people with sexuality education workshops. It’s a multi-faceted approach to an issue that requires an holistic solution.
“Our mission is to join hands with the community, to give hope and to change the life stories of these young girls and their babies. And to do that we need to address the whole problem, from sex education in schools, through to support for the pregnant girls and aftercare for the babies, whether they are to be adopted or kept by the mother,” Eyres explains as we sit down for coffee at the charity’s baby care centre on Bowen Road. The impressive colonial building was loaned to the charity by the government in 1990. Built in 1914, it was occupied by the Royal Navy after World War 2 and in 1979 was handed to the government. Mother’s Choice took over the space on the premise that it would take care of the, by then, decrepit building.
The building now houses up to 44 babies and young children waiting for permanent families either through adoption or reunion with their birth families. Just up the road is another building belonging to the charity that offers a safe space for vulnerable pregnant teenagers. “These young women need care, support, a safe space and the ability to choose their own path,” explains Eyres.
The Mother’s Choice story began following a news report in 1986 in the South China Morning Post detailing how pregnant girls as young as 13 were crossing the border into China for cheap, no-questions-asked abortions. It was estimated in the report that as many as 100 girls a day from Hong Kong were seeking such services, paying $700 for a fetus as progressed as nine months to be terminated.
The report was seen by Eyres’ parents as well as by friends who at the time were providing services to help Vietnamese refugees.
“They were shocked,” says Eyres, who was just nine at the time. “But instead of shrugging and saying ‘what can we do?’, they seriously asked ‘what can we do?’ and ended up launching Mother’s Choice, so-called because they wanted these vulnerable young girls to have a choice.”
Co-founder Helen Stephens was particularly touched by the girls’ plight as her own sister had faced a crisis pregnancy ten years previously. “Our whole family kept it a secret,” she said. “She was sent away and gave birth to a healthy baby girl whom she never held… She was never able to recover from the trauma, from sudden loss of innocence, from a total loss of former self. I knew that girls in Hong Kong faced the same scrutiny and judgement, and I felt led to support them.”
The four co-founders didn’t really know what to do next, but Eyres’ father (who was a former journalist) decided they should hold a press conference to publicise things. “A local hospital immediately called to place a pregnant young girl with them and twenty four hours later the first ‘Mother’s Choice baby’ was born.”
Over the next 30 years, the charity would care for over 2,000 babies and serve more than 53,000 pregnant girls with counselling, parental support and adoption.
“In 30 years, the biggest miracle that we have seen at Mother’s Choice is the change in attitude of our community,” says Eyres’ father, Ranjan Marwah. “At the start, many people asked why I wanted to help those ‘naughty girls’. Some of those same people are now our biggest supporters and they value the young women and children so differently. That gives me great hope for Hong Kong.”
At the time of the charity’s inception, Eyres’ father was in the throes of setting up a new business and her mother was taking care of their large, young family (Eyres is the oldest of seven children). But nevertheless they threw themselves into the charity.
“And that’s the point,” says Eyres. “There is never a right time, we constantly say ‘oh, I’ll step up when I’ve got more money, or when the kids are older, or when I’ve got a better job’, but there really is no time like the present. If you want to volunteer, now is as good a time as any.”
Eyres herself was born and brought up in Hong Kong, attending Bradbury and South Island Schools before moving to the US for her tertiary education. Her mother is American, her father Indian, and rather romantically they met on Star Ferry. She returned to Hong Kong fourteen years later as a corporate lawyer and never dreamed she would end up heading up the charity her parents had founded. But with the support of the board, she took over as chief executive officer in 2012.
The project Eyres is currently most proud of is a community-based foster care programme called Project Bridge that she launched four years ago. As she animatedly explains, a care home is no place for a baby. Children thrive best when nurtured in a loving, family environment.
“Sometimes we wait to place the baby back with its natural mother, but she often needs time to stabilise her situation. Or the baby is to be placed with an adoptive family, but it takes a minimum of six months for the paperwork to be processed. Project Bridge aims to provide that vital stepping stone between care home and forever home. Volunteers need to have been in Hong Kong for one year with plans to stay for two more, and be living in a clean and safe space to look after a child for up to a year.”
Mum-of-one Jasmin Blunck had seven-week-old baby ‘W’ placed in her care for seven weeks before he was moved on to a permanent home. “We loved being able to make a difference to his life,” she said. “You don’t need to be the perfect parent or have a massive house to be able to do this; anyone can. And what a Project Bridge family offers is so much better than the alternative.”
Project Bridge is currently desperate for volunteers and Eyres is quick to reassure that all Bridge families receive appropriate training and plenty of full-time support. They are also cleverly paired with a ‘buddy family’ who can step in when Bridge families need a bit of extra support.
The Bowen Road baby care home itself is light and bright, the rooms filled with smiling babies and toys and the walls busy with colourful photos, pictures and schedules. Mother’s Choice goes the extra mile to ensure each child is cared for as an individual rather than a number in a cot. There are excursions three times a week, carers put together a portfolio for each child (“it’s important that this stage of the child’s life is properly recorded, it all contributes to a proper sense of self later on,” says Eyres), the toddlers each have their own wardrobe of little clothes to choose from and a friend of the charity stitches colourful bed quilts for the children. There are also facilities for a small number of special needs children, with trained staff able to meet speech therapy and occupational health requirements. In a word, children that might be written off elsewhere are offered a chance to thrive.
But how does Eyres keep so positive when surrounded daily with stories of abandoned babies, abused young girls and general despair, I wonder?
“Because for every desperate story, there is a case with a positive outcome. I’ve been told over the years that babies wouldn’t survive, that they’d amount to nothing. And time after time we’ve proved the naysayers wrong.” She points to a photo of a severely facially disfigured young toddler on the wall. “We were told this little thing had no hope, that she’d amount to nothing with that kind of disability. And then a couple came here to volunteer, fell in love with her, adopted her, put her through numerous reconstructive surgeries and she went on to graduate from Harvard and now has a successful career in the US,” Eyres smiles proudly.
“And in 30 years we have come full circle for some. Some of our babies now volunteer with us. They say it takes a village to raise a child, at Mother’s Choice we see the miracles that can happen every day if the community opens up its heart. I am full of hope.”
In a shock announcement, catering group Castelo Concepts has said it will be ceasing its Jaspas Junk business as of May 1.
Citing rising operational costs and the high levels of expensive maintenance required to keep its ageing fleet of boats running, Castelo co-founders Brian and Wayne Parfitt say they will be concentrating on the group’s chain of restaurants moving forward.
“Although we will no longer be chartering the junks, we will offer a variety of catering options via our restaurants for guests to book when they take out their own junk, or book a third party charter option.” The pair also own oceanfront restaurant Jaspas Beach Club in Sai Kung which is sure to prove a popular spot for lunch with a water view.
The Parfitt brothers originally picked up their fleet of six boats from HSBC at HK$50,000 each during the global financial crisis. At the time, HSBC was cutting back on corporate entertainment and Wayne was keen to set up a commercial junk business having enjoyed days out on his own boat since the early ‘90s.
“We used to have these awesome parties and I thought maybe there would be some traction in renting junks commercially with drinks and a BBQ,” he said.
The resultant Jaspas Junks business achieved legendary status with expats throughout the territory, offering an unbeatable free-flow package with BBQ lunch, homemade pizzas and chocolate cake sailing home and oodles of Seabreezes that could be enjoyed afloat a noodle.
“I can’t believe Jaspas junks are no more!” lamented one expat. “Oh my god we’ve had so much fun on those boats over the years. Nobody could beat their food, drink and all-day boating package.” For an extra charge, kids could spend the day zooming around on a banana while the adults got down to the serious business of socialising. During the course of research for this article, only one party was discovered to have drunk a Jaspas junk dry – “and of course the staff immediately jumped into the speedboat to pick up top-ups back in Sai Kung,” admitted a member of the party (no names shall be named).
The junks operated out of Causeway Bay and Pak Sha Wan in Sai Kung and while there are many more Island-based junk operators, it is believed the Sai Kung crowd may struggle to find similar boat packages without a surcharge being added on for the New Territories pick-up.
“We’d like to give our skippers a special shout out, as well as our staff. They’ve helped us to build this great fun day out on Hong Kong waterways into such unique memories for so many,” continued the brothers. “For catering options, please contact Oolaa, Wagyu, Jaspas Sai Kung, Castelo Catering or High Street Grill.”
Hong Kong-based photographer Jo Farrell has spent a decade travelling to mainland China to document the last few surviving women who underwent the centuries old Chinese practice of foot binding. The resulting exhibition, Bound Feet Women of China, is now open at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science.
“I have been living in and out of Asia for the last 25 years and am fascinated by the culture here. Back in 2006, I decided to focus my photography on female traditions. My first thought was of the Chinese women who bound their feet. Novels Wild Swans (Jung Chang, 1991) and Life & Death in Shanghai (Nien Cheng, 1987) first introduced me to foot binding and I guessed there must still be a few women alive who had undergone this process. Foot binding was outlawed in the early twentieth century, but the practice persisted in rural areas until the late 1940s.
“I started to ask around amongst my contacts in mainland China and eventually came across a driver who said his grandmother had bound feet. She became the first woman to feature in the project.
“Since then, mainly through word-of-mouth, I have discovered more women. Most are from Shandong Province and also Yunnan and Shaanxi.
“Like most people, I had preconceptions about foot binding. But when I held a bound foot in my hands for the first time, it was so soft and beautifully structured that I realised how much the women must have gone through to obtain what was considered at the time to be beautiful. The practice of foot binding resonated with me as even today, we place increasing value on the way someone looks rather than the actual substance of a person; whether they are fundamentally good, supportive, creative, interesting, passionate and so forth.
“Traditionally, foot binding would begin with the toenails being clipped and then the feet being soaked in hot water to soften the tissue and bones to facilitate the manipulation. All the toes on the foot, except the big one, were then folded under the sole and the toes bound in place with a long cotton cloth bandage. One way to physically encourage foot reduction was by swapping the girl’s shoes for a smaller, tighter pair every few months. Many of the women told me that the cotton bindings were sewn in place to stop the child removing the bandage. They were forced to regularly walk so that their own weight crushed their toes underneath them. In the early years, the washing and binding was carried out by the mother. As time passed, the girls themselves tightened the bandages on their own. Many of the women in this project chose to bind their own feet as their mothers refused to do it; when asked why they said they did it to ‘fit in’ with their friends and to ensure they had good marriage prospects. Some of the women only had their feet bound for a short length of time before it was outlawed but the damage had already been done. There were no formal guidelines for foot-binding and the feet were often bound in inelegant ways.
“Foot binding represents ‘old China’ and most of the women I spoke with condoned the practice. It impeded their ability to work and to provide food for their family during the cultural revolution and ensuing great famine. But having bound feet was imperative to finding a good matrimonial match and the smaller and more well-formed the bound foot, the more options were available to women. When the feet were unbound, the foot naturally spread and the women I spoke with were eager to convey, with what I believe was pride, that they once had feet two or three inches smaller than they are now. I think it is important that they feel their efforts were not in vain and I hope my photographs come across as both meaningful and beautiful.
“When I give lectures about foot binding I talk about what we consider to be beauty and how it differs in every culture. My work is about the the limits women will go to to be accepted in their own society.
“Over the past 13 years I have visited some of these women every year. I follow through and find out how their lives are progressing. I really enjoy my visits, it feels like I have an army of grandmothers out there. I share meals with them and drink lots of tea. We enjoy our time together.”