Lee Kuan Yew’s parting gift to Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew

Honestly what more is there to be said at this time? The feelings one has for Mr. Lee Kuan Yew are hard to express, impossible to say it all.

There are moments this past week when it feels like the rest of the world stopped existing and the only thing happening to Singapore is mourning the loss of our leader. Tribute after tribute fills the media. Posters line the streets. It kind of forces one to recollect and reflect on his work and legacy.

I still talk about Lee Kuan Yew in the present tense as if he’s still with us today. For someone larger than life, it’s hard to let go easily especially when he is with us for most of our lives, and for me even longer than my own parents.

Before my parents passed away, both my father and mother said the same thing – their work is done, they’ve raised us to be independent, the only thing they want us to do after they are gone is to be keep the family together. There will be differences, we will not have much time for each other, we may live far away from each other, and it will take a lot of effort but keep the closeness in our hearts and always stay in touch.

In the past few days, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew has united Singaporeans again as his body is laid in state. His parting gift to us. When his work is done and we’ve become a successful nation, I believe what he wants most for Singapore is a united people – despite our differences, despite the challenges.

Rest in peace, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. You will always be remembered for all that you’ve done for this country.

Joan Yap

Home is…

 

Photo: Wikimedia.org

Photo: Wikimedia.org

… the most expensive city in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Buf!

Singaporeans don’t really need to be reminded all the time and our country labelled as such when we feel the pinch of rising costs every day. It’s pretty intimating when you think that this city is really a country, when not too long ago we were receiving financial aid and other assistance from the Commonwealth for our survival and development.

This little city-state slightly over 700 sq km is one-third the size of Tokyo and half of London. We are all compressed and compact into a concentrated urban space to house a growing imported population with increasing imported goods and services. And that’s squeezing some of us out like the truffles and gold dust in a Bacon Bling sandwich as you grabbed it with both hands to fit into your mouth.

Oh no, I’m not complaining. I’m just highlighting that it really isn’t fun being in the most expensive city-country in the world where there are no suburbs, forget about countryside (there is none here) that we can retreat to once in a while or to relocate for a less hectic lifestyle.

We’re only 50 years old this year, an economic miracle built by a hungry workforce and a team of visionary leaders who have passed on and are phasing out. It is sad, like a part of our family is leaving because they are the ones who groomed and nurtured us through the education system, creating jobs and opportunities, enabling our social progress and creating a safe and stable home for all.

Now that we’ve reached the top of the ladder. What’s next? Is there another level to climb? We’ll have to find out. That’s how it is for as long as I remember being a Singaporean, only one way to go – UP.

Joan Yap

Reflections of Spain

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Bored in transit…a few more hours to my flight home and I’m already missing Spain and my friends.

Madrid is still alluring. This time armed with a bit of basic Spanish and new friends, the city draws me closer to her people, opening up new tributaries of life and cultures, and this is just the beginning.

Unlike the bigger better known European cities, Madrid seems to have a deliberate, almost shy way of going about with her own business. The city continues to function within its classic architecture, restoring as much as possible, replacing without piercing the skyline, keeping buildings and streets as original as the day they were built.

It was cold when I arrived 5 weeks ago and there was some massive snowfalls in the mountains and most of places up north. Yes it does snow in Spain and they have pretty nice ski resorts too that many people outside the country don’t know or bother with.

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One weekend, I went on an hour’s drive from Madrid to Segovia, a sprawling romantic province with a Celtic background, Roman and Arab influence, famed for the world’s best preserved Roman Aqueduct, the massive Segovia Cathedral, and the Alzacar castle which was one of the inspirations for Cinderella’s castle.

In fact just about one hour’s drive from the city is a ring of incredibly well-kept historical cities and provinces somewhat under-publicized but I’m not complaining because there is a bit of selfishness to keep them to myself. But these are no secrets. Google, explore them with an open mind, prepare for surprises and allow yourself to be delighted.

Like many people, I once had the impression that Spain is one big arid plain with bull-fighters and gypsies until my brother Stanley and my sister-in-law Sally introduced me to this beautiful country more than a decade ago. They brought the family to so many wonderful places in Andalucia and other parts of Spain that frankly I can’t remember them all. There was always something new and different with each visit. It will be hard to stay away for too long now or continue to be an occasional tourist.

I will resume my language lessons, complete the walk to Santiago and perhaps start a blog on Spain. Please stay with me, won’t you?

Joan Yap

Jerez de la Frontera (Sherry of the Border)

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I’m so wrong about this place. Jerez is far from being a boring little obscure forgotten town, by the way and out of the way from Cadiz. And my original plan to spend two weeks writing my new book in this “one-horse town” only ends up loving Spain even more.

Contrary to my naïve first impression, Jerez is definitely not a one-horse town. The Horse or El Caballo is a most distinguished symbol of Jerez. These Carthusian or Andalusian horses are excellent performers of strength and beauty characteristic of their breed. Throughout the year, equestrian events are held showcasing spectacular dressage shows with colourfully dressed señors and señoritas strutting their stuff on foot and on carriages. Ladies with flowers in their hair and colourful flowing Spanish dresses with their men in traditional Andalucian riding costumes, all looking dashing and flamboyant.

Talk about costumes and traditions, the old town is filled with flamenco music and dance studios, theatres and shops. According to the tourism brochure, Jerez is the birthplace of flamenco and is a magnet of flamenco enthusiasts from all over Spain and the world. Damn right, I’m spoiled now. Won’t see flamenco elsewhere except in Jerez where locals in tabernas will spontaneously perform a little song and dance when the mood is right after a few rounds of their fortified wines.

Not surprising, here is the place where the favourite after-dinner drink sherry first originated and how the place got its name. There are so many bodegas around town all offering tours and degustation for happy tourists to taste the ageing of a certain white palomino grape. Like ‘Champagne’, the name ‘Sherry’ is protected and can only be used for sweet wine produced here. By the way, Jerez means sherry in Spanish and is derived from various old names including Xerez.

Walk around the old town through meandering lanes and open squares, Christian buildings with Moorish ruins, Phoenician and Roman remains, signs of Spain’s golden age and today’s recession, peddlers selling garlic and other farm produce outside high Spanish fashion brands in classic buildings, a busker outside a restaurant, a vagabond admiring an old church, a group of old friends, young people, an odd guiri hoping to find inspiration to write.

Each evening when Steve comes back from work, he’ll ask “So did you get any writing done?” and it’s the same answer, “No, but I’m on to something” which really means I’ve not started on my book yet.

Well tomorrow I’m going back to Madrid after two lovely weeks in Jerez, the not-boring, not-obscure, many-horses city so superbly hidden from the world. And I think I’ve really got something going on now.

Joan Yap

Renfe train station to Madrid

Renfe train station to Madrid

All the Spanish brands are here - Mango, Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Sfera, Stradivarius..

Many of the Spanish brands are here – Mango, Zara, Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Sfera, Stradivarius..

Jeres shopping street

Jerez shopping street

Dogs wait while owners shop

Dogs wait while owners shop

A bodega

One of the many bodegas

Remains of an Arabic castle

Remains of an Arabic castle

A beautiful but neglected church

A beautiful but neglected church

Between religions

Between religions

Cathedral San Salvador

Cathedral San Salvador

Villamarta Theatre of the Arts

Villamarta Theatre of the Arts

Save this for the next trip back

Save this for the next trip back

 

 

 

 

 

Pueblos Blancos

Steve flies over these pretty amazing communities on hilltops and valleys, and wonders how they are like from the ground. As ever an eager traveller I am, it wasn’t difficult to be convinced of a visit to one or some of them.

Pueblos Blancos or White Towns of Andalucía as they are called, are well-known in this part of Spain. They were prehistoric settlements from cave homes to Moorish villages to uniformed towns under the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera. Apparently the whitewashing of these towns was mandated as a form of oppression and suppression of personal, social and political freedom.

That’s a generation ago. Today, they radiate with charm and calm with their quiet narrow cobbled paths, layers of white over layers of history, fascinating holes in the walls where people live and lived, Spanish tiles, Moorish styles, with every turn of the corner a surprising discovery, the top of a church, a grand lookout and even if there’s nothing interesting it’s the brilliant blue sky above gleaming white.

During this trip, I realized that Steve has a habit of parking his car at the bottom of each town so in order to enjoy the splendour of these ancient towns, we have to walk up and up, not really knowing exactly where the roads lead, sometimes into people’s courtyards and so we have to backtrack and find another way out and up. But that makes the visit so enjoyable and the view at the top so worthwhile.

Enough said. Pictures speak louder than words and I hope my phone camera does justice to the beauty of Medina-Sidonia, Ubrique and Arcos. Enjoy the photo-tour…Joan Yap

Out in the countryside powered by the wind

Out in the countryside powered by wind

Medina Sidonia - original site founded by the Phoenicians, and now by Steve.

Medina Sidonia – original site founded by the Phoenicians, and now by Steve.

The entire town is celebrating something, spring festival, Chinese New Year?

The entire town is celebrating something – spring festival, Chinese New Year?

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View from the restaurant we had our lunch

Ubrique - where big brands like Gucci & Loewe source their leather

Ubrique – where big brands like Gucci & Loewe source their leather

Way up to the top

Way up to the top

Another high point overlooking the white town

High point overlooking the white town

The narrow lanes of Arco where Steve is determined to walk up despite the car coming towards us

The narrow alleys of Arcos where Steve is determined to walk up despite the car coming towards us

Alley cat

Alley cat…don’t even think of asking it for directions.

This cutie is waiting for someone, kept looking round the corner and down the lane.

This cutie is waiting for someone, kept looking round the corner and down the lane.

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Halfway up, we realized we were walking the stations of the cross.

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Gate to courtyard houses

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The climax of our climb – view from the peak at Plaza del Cabildo

Midnight Flamenco

Luisa Palicio@

 “You must see a flamenco performance while you’re in Jerez.” Nieves urged me. “It’s the centre of flamenco in the world.”

So I asked Steve if we could find a flamenco place and he agreed we’ll look for the Sala Compañía, a cultural performance centre in the old town after dinner. The Sala Compañía is a simple stone building with a large wooden door and quiet façade. It was unimpressive but there was a queue outside the building .. at 11pm? There were no posters or signs to tell what’s going on so out of curiosity, I approached a couple to find out more in my limited Spanish.

But hey, the couple is from Taiwan and we chatted away in Mandarin, to Steve’s amusement that one can get by, even in this little Andalucían town or just about anywhere in the world with Chinese, English or Spanish.

As it turned out, it’s the opening night of the Flamenco Festival of Jerez with the first performance at midnight. Flamenco enthusiasts from all over the world are in Jerez attending the two-week festival with special performances and masterclasses.

There was no need to consider and no time to waste. We bought the tickets and joined the enthusiasts to watch the solo dance by a Luisa Palicio.

This was the first classic flamenco performance we’ve seen and we were surprisingly mesmerised. It was fiery, passionate, expressive, emotional, agonising, seductive… The music, the movements, the voices – perfectly choreographed into one electrifying hour of pure Spanish entertainment.

Steve and I couldn’t believe we would enjoy the flamenco so much. It was past 1am when we left the theatre, talking all the way back about the performance that we did not understand a single word and yet felt so much for the art form.

And we wouldn’t have experienced a world-class performance if we were at the place earlier or seen the queue or ask someone. What luck!

Joan Yap

An Overseas Chinese Abroad

CNY goat

It’s nice to see pictures of family reunions, feasting and celebrations. Here in Jerez, time passes by like any ordinary day with not another Chinese person in sight, the spring festival brings peace and quiet reflection, fond memories of lunar new years past and loved ones all over the world.

As if to lift up the spirits, the sky finally cleared up after days of grey overcast. Chinese New Year’s day started with a bright brilliant morning, a clear blue sky all day, a cloudless night with the new waxing moon and Venus by its side.

The streets are lined with orange trees all over the old town and the fragrance of spring fills the air. It was beautiful.

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Gong Xi Fa Cai!” Steve wished me at dinnertime as we listened to Chinese songs from his collection from Singapore and Malaysia. “How does it feel to be Chinese? Or Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) as you probably are.”

And we went into a discussion about the notion of nations, the Chinese diaspora and racial dilution that I won’t bore you with.

But honestly, what defines a person? – race, culture, heritage, history, nationality, or where you live, what you do, things you like, people you’re with, values, practices, attitudes, outlooks?

Chinese New Year celebrates the coming of spring in agrarian societies and the tradition continues. Tradition is good. Reminds us of our roots. But our roots don’t define us.

I look Chinese, speak Chinese but I’m not as Chinese as a PRC or Hong Kong or Taiwan Chinese.” I explained to Steve.

Amongst the Chinese, we know where we stand in the Chineseness of things. And that makes it so fascinating. There are so many sub-cultures within the main Chinese culture.

And like everything else, one is an adaptation or a corruption of another over the years. What’s pure and original has been weakened and strengthened at the same time to create new traditions which will continue to evolve.

Throughout the 15 days of celebration, Chinese all over the world usher in the New Year with lion dances and other auspicious activities, wishes for prosperity and good fortune.

From Spain to my family and friends everywhere, my sincere greetings for this Chinese New Year –

祝你 新年快乐, 身体健康,万事如意

Wishing you Happiness and Good Health for the New Year, and Success in all you do.

Joan Yap