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Back on the Bike

Jimmy Guardino share his first six months of cycling with ANZA. My leap from the United States to Singapore in August 2012 was anything but ordinary. A week prior to my big departure at my last cycling event in the States, I came down in a high-speed crash and broke my shoulder blade. Not the send-off I was hoping for by any stretch of the imagination.

Before I moved to Singapore, I was doing 40 or more races a year with the Quaker City Wheelmen, a Philadelphia-based elite cycling team. So naturally, when my ‘real world’ job as a reinsurance broker offered an opportunity to move to Singapore for two years, my first instinct was to Google “cycling teams Singapore”. The first group I came across was ANZA Cycling. The club was well-established and welcoming to newcomers, so I reached out to then road director Mark Haller. A few days later he came back to me and confirmed what I had been eager to hear – cycling was alive and well in Singapore!

So off I went to Singapore, alone, without my beloved bike and my arm in a sling.

About a month later it was time to say goodbye to the sling. Coincidentally it was also around the same time that ANZA was having a social event for new members to the club. I was a bit nervous on the night of the event but everyone was very friendly. People were intrigued by my story and my planned comeback. It was this event that, coupled with the team’s overwhelming support to have me represent ANZA Cycling, sparked my motivation to return to racing. My comeback race would be representing ANZA in the Cat 1 field of the Tour de Bintan in November 2012.

My bike arrived in September – finally it would be time to get back out on the open road. I arrived at the first Saturday morning ride with no idea what to expect. When I arrived at the local meeting place I was greeted by a swarm of flashing lights and cyclists alike. I was in my element and quickly found some familiar faces in ANZA kits.

Slowly but surely, over the next few weeks I got to know my fellow teammates both on and off the bike. The weekend rides were enjoyable and offered varying levels of difficulty depending on what you were looking for. Still, regardless of how fast or slow, we always regrouped for coffee and banter afterwards – crucial ingredients to any good weekend bike ride! While this was happening, veteran club members Glen Kenny and Alan Benson were putting together a weekend trip for us to travel as a team to Bintan, Indonesia to recon the tour stages.

Between the hundreds of kilometers logged and overall sense of camaraderie I felt with my new teammates, this trip was and will always be one of my favorites.

Finally it was the big weekend of the Tour de Bintan. The support from fellow club members was enormous. ANZA Cycling was well represented in just about every field of competition. When fellow teammate Pierre-Alain Scherwey and I managed to break away and place second and third respectively in Stage 2 and reach the podium representing ANZA, it was by far one of the most epic feelings in the world. To think, just three months after being sidelined with a broken shoulder blade, and now I was on top of the world, celebrating a successful return to racing with some great new mates. I really could not have asked for anything more.

This article was originally published in April 2013.

Southern Hemisphere Wine Vintages in 2013

The wine harvest season in the Southern Hemisphere in 2013 was a classic case of less is more: hot dry weather meant lower yields but expectations of higher flavour intensity, particularly for McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley reds. The expectations were looking like an exciting vintage all round, with Hunter Valley winemaker Andrew Cruickshank of Callatoota estate saying, “It had been fantastic year”.

I thought we’d take a brief retrospective through the recent vintages and some of their best wines, starting with Stella Bella Sangiovese Cabernet 2008 When a young vineyard has such strong branding my natural reaction is (I’m almost ashamed to admit) skeptical. Perhaps it’s my European side, but I tend to think that a winery needs to have consistently proved itself before it becomes a familiar name, whereas Stella Bella seems to have inserted itself into the common vernacular alongside veterans such as Howard Park. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge for this robust red wine from Western Australia, I’m also not keen on progressive blends. Well, this wine breaks both of those rules. The mix of the earthy tannins and dry cherry fruit in the Sangiovese is subtly enhanced with a sweeter dark red berry Cabernet Sauvignon that manages to add to the palate whilst staying discretely in the background. A delightful example of a year that split the country in two, with eastern wine regions suffering from blistering heat, but a classis vintage in the west.

Rolling the clock forward to 2009 and travelling south and east to McLaren Vale. The crew at Brick Kiln have discovered the secret of ageing – not, as most of us would like to discover, how to stay eternally youthful, but instead how to produce mature, complex wines despite only being planted in 1996. Perhaps the secret is finding what you’re good at and sticking to it, and at Brick Kiln that’s Shiraz. This is the kind of wine that makes you want to dive into the glass. The sheer depth of flavours and aromas without becoming an overpoweringly strong red, is stunning. Drink it while you can, since cool weather dramatically affected yields of 2009 Shiraz from McLaren Vale.

Dialling our compass north, just briefly, to Napa and a vineyard that sits in the centre of that great wine growing region, Predator Old Vines Zinfandel 2010 is a perfect example of why vineyards shouldn’t be afraid to sacrifice yield for complexity. Harvested from 40 year old vines, this deep purple wine is rich, with mocha notes and Christmas spices. 2010 was a cool summer in Napa, producing elegant and restrained reds, while for Australia it marked the first vintage since 2004 to be consistently good across all regions.

Our first white of the day is Highfield Sauvignon Blanc 2011, from Marlborough NZ. For a young wine, this is a remarkably intelligent tipple. Classically herbaceous aromas combine with an acidic palate that never approached sharp. Five months ageing on yeast lees adds to the complexity in this wine, making it a surprisingly multi-layered youthful drop.

Soul Growers Riesling 2012 from Australia’s Eden Valley is a great example of a dry Riesling: fresh, almost tart, with citrus notes and a lingering finish. 2012 was a challenging vintage for reds in the Eden Valley, due to cooler weather, but whites were abundant, so fill your boots (or fridges).

This article was originally published in April 2013 and modified for The ANZA Guide to Singapore.

To Be the Belle of the Ball

The ticket is bought, the table is full and the gang is ready for their next ball. Well the guys are. For the girls, it’s just the beginning.

Black tie, formal, red carpet – all these words send us girls hurtling towards Orchard Road, credit card in hand, to start the search for the new dress.

But what is a formal dress? How do I accessories it? Most importantly, where do I go to find one?

Well, the best black-tie gown is one that suits your personality, body shape and budget. Once you have done a few balls, you may want to mix it up with different dresses that could be a bit more cocktail-style. Regardless of the style, there are few rules I go by when selecting my black-tie outfits.

Choose the right accessories. Strappy shoes, clutch bag and bling jewellery are a must.

If the dress is short, choose strapless, tulle or sequins to make it formal. A dress that could be worn to work won’t work! And just because it is long, does not always mean it is black tie.

No matter how cold it may be inside or out, a jacket or wrap that doesn’t complement the dress should be left at home.

The right knickers will make or break your outfit. Find the right bra and, more importantly, wear knickers that hold you in with no VPL (visible panty line). To be sure, take the dress in with you to Triumph and try on their range until you have the perfect fit and finish.

Get the right fit. If you have to tug and pull at your dress while trying it on, it will drive you made on the dance floor and will not be a good look when you don’t care anymore. Dresses that fall down, ride up or grab in all the wrong spots should be put back on the rack.

Recycle. Choose a different crowd and wear the same dress, and mix it up with a change to the shoe, bag, accessory or the way you do your hair.

Most of all, enjoy the ritual of dressing up and, treat yourself to a makeover. You deserve it!

This article was originally published in April 2013.

Best spots to shop for formal wear in Singapore:

  •  BCBG Maxazaria – Stores at Paragon, MBS and Ion
  • Ana boutique – Club St – Stockist for Pia Gladys Perry
  • Willow and Huxley – Amoy St
  • Karen Millen – Paragon, Ion
  • Charlie Brown – Online and in Sydney
  • Coast – Paragon
  • Raoul – Paragon 

Shoes, accessories and bags:

  • Guess
  • Haji Lane (for clutches)
  • Diva
  • Lovisa
  • Steve Madden
  • Nine West

Aussie Rules in Singapore

The Singapore Australia Rules Football club started life as the Singapore Lions in 1993. It was somewhat of a false start, as the founders, in their eagerness to create a social sporting club for Aussie rules fans, neglected the fact that there was another football franchise in Singapore also called the Lions – the National soccer team! So, it was a letter from the Singapore Lions’ legal department that led to the birth of the Wombats. Why the Wombats? Every other iconic Australia animal was already claimed as a mascot, and the Wombat was an apt description of the early playing stock.

The Wombats purpose has always been primarily social, the football being a reason to gather on a Saturday and have a few beers. Like all things that have humble beginnings, the Club has grown over the years in tandem with similar clubs all around Asia.

In 1999, a quasi-Asian league was formed, and the inaugural Asian Championships were held in Bangkok, which Singapore won, defeating arch-rival Hong Kong in the final.

Singapore has gone on to be the most successful team in a league that now has thirteen teams. Notably, Singapore went undefeated from November 1996 to August 2002, a reign Kevin Sheedy say is the longest undefeated run he has encountered during his 50 years in the game as a player and coach.

In 1997, the Wombats represented Singapore at the biannual Arafura games in Darwin, and were the only Singapore team to win a medal (a bronze). This led to a televised game between Singapore and Malaysia in 1997 which attracted a large crowd of curious spectators. It is now part of Wombat folklore that the coach appeared on Singapore’s Sunday morning sports program to discuss the game, wearing his shirt inside out and looking slightly disheveled after a massive night out celebrating the win over the Malaysian Tigers, as they were then known.

Finding a space large enough to play our game has always presented a major challenge to the club’s survival. In the early days, a fax would go out each Friday at 3pm, specifying Saturday’s training venue. Over the years, games have been played at Sentosa, Sembawang, the field where the Marina Bay Sands currently sits, and various random fields in the heartlands. Much later, Turf City provided the club its first real home.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Wombats became famous for hosting large, Australian-style sportsman’s nights which would pack out entire hotel ball rooms and feature legendary Australian cricketers (Dennis Lillie was the first guest), and a procession of Aussie rules identities, ranging from Kevin Sheedy to Warrick Capper. The late David Hookes was one of the most popular. In 2002, the club raised $75,000 for the Bali bombing appeal at an event held at the Regent Hotel, where it is believed that’s the world’s highest price for a VB stubby ($7000) was paid in the charity auction. The grand final functions in the 1990s developed a reputation as the expat party of the year and the only place you could watch the AFL final, semi-live. The games were recorded via satellite at the Australian Naval Base and couriered to the function to be played back, with a ‘slight’ delay.

The demographic of the Wombats has changed somewhat over the years. In the early 1990s, the club was populated with young people looking to find opportunity overseas against the backdrop of Australia’s last recession and general economic gloom, with young engineers making up the majority. Now the club incorporates a broad cross-section of the expat community, with many long-term expats forming the foundation of a club that hopefully will be around for many years to come. To find out more email aussierules@anza.org.sg

This article was originally published in March 2013.

Get Dive Fit

Being a diver means that you have additional health issues that non-divers don’t really need to worry about as much. We don’t need to be Olympians, but we do need a good degree of fitness. Being fit enough to swim 200 metres without stopping is one of the course criteria.

All divers must follow these health and care guidelines:

  • Keep well hydrated before and after each dive.
  • Avoid colds, which can block sinuses, which are a critical part of the body. Colds can cause equalisation problems, which can be a little painful. So stay healthy and keep your ears cleaned too.
  • Smoking is a definite no go, but unfortunately many divers still continue to smoke and accept the risks involved.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol prior to all dives, and any evening drinks prior to a day of diving should be reduced to nil or very little.
  • Avoid getting sunburn.

Some general tips are:

  • Be medically dive fit and physically dive fit – yoga and stretching exercises will help with your breathing techniques.
  • Eat a piece of fruit before and after each dive – this helps avoid muscle cramps and replaces vitamins depleted during dives. Bananas and watermelon are especially good.
  • Don’t dive if you’re feeling unwell – rest on the boat.
  • Be well hydrated – drink lots of water and avoid carbonated drinks.
  • Be well insulated – change into dry clothes after your dive.
  • Avoid deep, repetitive dives, and reduce diving depths during a weekend of diving.
  • Minimise exercise during and after diving – a nap should always be in order.

As with anything to do with your health, if you are unsure, consult a doctor or a specialised dive doctor.

This article was originally published in March 2013.

The Healthy Wardrobe

When shopping for fashion, most of us like to look for natural fibres, cottons, silks, and linens. Living in Singapore, where the climate is constantly hot and sticky, natural fibers are a must. 

But as with our food, just because it is natural, does not mean it is organic. The majority of clothing produced nowadays is treated by harsh chemicals – recognisable by the “new t-shirt” smell which disappears after a couple of washes.

These chemicals are used to keep the garments crease free and pretty for merchandising and sale. Unfortunately, these chemicals are toxic and not good for us. For this reason, we should be washing everything before we wear it – unless, of course, we have bought organic.

Organic brands promise that no chemicals where used making the fabric – whether it’s in growing the cotton, silk or bamboo, or making the finished product. This includes everything from sprays on crops to transport and shipping.

For me this is particularly important for babies and children, and one of my all-time favorite brands for organic baby clothes, bed linen and products is Nature Baby in New Zealand. They ship internationally and provide organic cotton and wool for newborns all the way through to school age.

There has been a lot of research into the chemicals used in bedding products, and for this reason mattress covers have become a must for all new mums. The same applies for the linen. Choosing organic cotton sheets, pyjamas, sleeping bags and mattress protectors are most definitely a healthier choice.

But what about the ethical argument? Well, as a stylist, I love looking for boutique-type brands that source their own fabrics and stores that deal with boutique designers. This way, not only are we getting unique pieces but we also know there is integrity in their manufacturing.

A new store to Singapore on Amoy St is Willow and Huxley, and they have a plethora of international brands that fit this bill perfectly. They have limited collections, and beautiful fabrics and cuts.

Of course there will always be the need and desire to shop High St and there is more and more pressure on the big brands to manufacture ethically. As consumers we can choose to support or not support those that do indeed have a conscience and protect human rights and the environment.

The environment is also to be considered, and we should look for renewable and sustainable materials. One of the up-and-coming ethical choices is bamboo. Bamboo is renewable, extremely fast growing, and the fabric itself is superbly comfortable and absorbs more moisture on the skin than cotton – so it’s perfect for Singapore. I love the range from Zhai for basics. Getting a healthy wardrobe is easy, it just takes a little thought and an awareness of what your options are.

Happy shopping!

ETHICAL BRANDS

Bassike   www.bassike.com.au

Nature Baby     www.naturebaby.co.nz

Zhai      www.zhai.com.sg

Willow and Huxley      www.willowandhuxley.com

Earth and Me      www.myearthtoo.com

This article was originally published in March 2013, photo courtesy of Zhai.

Trigger Happy – Improving your Holiday Snaps

Part of the appeal of living in Asia is travelling to interesting places and experiencing different cultures and photography is a great way to capture those memories and share the experiences. However, many people use a badge-of-honour approach to their holiday pictures: “here is me in front of (insert landmark or iconic view)”. Too many holiday photos are of people standing in front of things. This type of photographer seems to value evidence of the “experience” rather than the experience itself!

Improving your travel photography can be as simple as asking yourself why you are taking this photograph. What is it about the location that is prompting you to pull out your camera? If you want your photos to be more than a checklist of “been there done that”, then some consideration is required before pushing the shutter button.

Try a different angle

Most people shoot from eye level, so try kneeling or lying down, and shoot up. Or climb on a bench or up a staircase and shoot down from there. At least your shot will not look like the thousands that others have taken at the same location.

Photo 1 – Looking down on Fish markets in Sai Kung, Hong Kong.

Get in close

People often use a wide angle to try and capture everything, but often these photos do not do the location justice. Instead, try getting up close to your subject or pick out interesting detail.

Photo 2 – Detail from Tian Tan Budda, Hong Kong.

Look for something unique

Try to find something different that defines the location.

Photo 3 – Children heading to school in Bhutan wearing compulsory traditional dress.

Create a connection

Photos of people are a great way to generate an emotional connection. Don’t be afraid to ask people if you can take their photo.

Photo 4 –Lady holding fish – Ho Chi Minh market

Combine these ideas

The best travel photos encompass more than one of the ideas above, providing an insight into the unique essence of a location or a culture.

Photo 5 – This sums up Hong Kong for me – lots of traffic, lots of people, old and new all stacked up on each other.

 Finally, take lots of photos! Although some of them will be lousy, with some thinking, you will also end up with some brilliant ones.

Post-holiday tip

If you want friends or relatives to enjoy looking at your photos, don’t show them all 263 shots! Don’t make the mistake of thinking photos that are important to you will be interesting to other people. Pick a very small number of photos that capture the essence of the destination, and keep the rest for your memories.

If you are interested in improving your photography come along to the ANZA click club. It is open to all experience levels and is a great way to learn from others. photography@anza.org.sg

This article was originally published in March 2013.

Fitness Gets Tough

Remember when pilates was all the rage? How about when yoga was just for new-age salad scoffers and not for, well, everyone? While just yesterday it seems exercise was all about breathing, yoga, and pilates – low-impact workouts which, while they could make you huff and puff, were more likely to leave you with a peaceful sense of accomplishment, rather than an urge to collapse into a heap on the floor.

 That’s all changed in the new age of the workout. High-intensity is the new norm, and it has arrived in a variety of different vehicles. CrossFit, boot camp, TRX, boxing and mixed-martial-arts-style training: all those deadlifts, one-legged squats, three-minute heavy bag sessions and burpees are guaranteed to leave the user totally exhausted and in need of a nice holiday to show off those hardened muscles.

 Although you could be a soldier or a champion fighter and benefit from the workouts, more and more mere mortals are taking up high-intensity challenges to shed kilos and tone up.

One person helping everyday office workers and mums take up the challenge is personal trainer Lisa Clayton, 30-year-old mum of two and the face of OZFit. She is a bootcamp instructor at the Botanical Gardens, Fort Canning Park and East Coast in mornings. She’s a Sydney Northern Beaches girl and has been in Singapore for five years now. As well as twins Max and Cooper, she has another on the way. You won’t get called a worthless maggot in her boot camps, however. “I’m not into the military style of training, yelling at you, making you crawl through mud. “We do a mixture of cardio drills and high intensity interval training, where we alternate periods of short, intense anaerobic exercise with short recovery periods. Strength training is also an essential part of the workout. We perform body weight exercises, use stairs, hills and benches to get the most out of all the parks have to offer. With the addition of resistance bands, we really can tone the muscles and build strength.”

As well as the willpower to get fit, Lisa’s boot camp recruits also have to have the willpower to get out of bed – the earliest starts at 6.15am at Fort Canning Park, well before the sun rises. This colourful collection of men and women clutching their yoga mats don’t stay sleepy for long, though. Five minutes into the workout and the beads of sweat are starting to form.

Lisa says these days, people are bored with the monotony of the gym or the daily run, and are thinking about their wallets in these recession-prone times. “Personal training can be expensive, people get sick of the same routines of going to the gym and running the same route.” It’s also good to be able to egg your mates on. “The best way to get motivated is to turn up with a group of friends or like-minded people and not be the only one working hard. It’s not a party, though, “You will have fun doing it but, I don’t let people come for a chit chat, you’re going to work hard! Not to mention, in order to see change and get results, you need to mix it up. No question about it. Boot camps offer the complete package of cardio and strength training-stuff you’re never going to want to do on your own.”

All that hard work can be humbling for cocky guys who think Lisa’s big smile and easygoing manner means it’s going to be an easy workout. “I tell you, it’s the men who sometimes struggle the most as they can be really either cardio-fit and their core is really weak, making the strength component hard, or they are very strong due to lifting a lot of weights but they really could step their cardio level up. Every class can be tailored to all levels so no one will feel like they are holding anyone up. Everyone does their best.”

Lisa’s expanding her classes to include boxing – a response to growing demand for boxing-style workouts, which have long been fabled to be some of the toughest around. The typical image of a boxing gym – that of a dingy shed, smelling of ripe socks and filled with undesirable rogues – has changed in recent years. Now, many are modern, well-lit, smoothly-marketed machines catering for the office set, and are not so daunting for those wanting to give it a try and get fit.

One way to do that? How about signing up for a charity boxing match, training for months to get in the ring with another amateur for three rounds? That’s exactly what ANZA member Jemma Hooykaas is doing. The 31-year-old Kiwi is a teacher at the Singapore American School, and when she’s not teaching, she’s at the gym, working the heavy bag and building up her endurance to last three rounds in the ring. That’s more than three months of training for six minutes of fight – some of the most exhausting physical stress any normal person can put their body under. Jemma wanted to get involved “just the opportunity to see how far I can push myself”. “Also, it’s for an amazing charity,” she says. Fighters are raising money for the Cambodian charity, the Children’s Surgical Centre and its affiliate, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity.

Boxing training usually involves a variation of body-weight exercises such as push-ups and burpees, interspersed with shadow boxing, spar play, heavy bag work and other explosive exercises. It’s incredibly draining work, as Jemma can attest to. She reckons she was pretty fit before signing up for the training. “I thought I was – but I wasn’t! It’s a whole another level of fitness.” The first training was a bit of a shock to the senses. “We started with a 30-minute run, then did circuits. It was intimidating! “It’s the first time in my life that within two minutes I’m dripping with sweat.” And the training sessions don’t get any easier. “They’re hard. Man, you walk out the door and get on the train and I have to fight to stay awake!”

Of course, the bag doesn’t hit back, and the exertion steps up a level once you get in the ring. Jemma had just started sparring with head coach Alexis. “I learnt that I drop my guard. It’s thinking that you know something and quickly realising that you know very little. When someone starts punching you in the head [the training] all goes out the window.” For Jemma, boxing training has it all. “It combines everything. I feel it’s the ultimate fitness workout.”

With that in mind, I went to see personal trainer Brendan Loo, founder of Fitness Evolution. I meet him at Energia fitness club in Robertson Quay, where he trains his clients. As a Singaporean with Australian residency, Brendan has been a personal trainer for 13 years, which he claims makes him an old man. He says CrossFit, boot camps, TRX, and other high-impact training regimes gaining popularity are all quite closely related. “Every few years someone will come in with something new. “CrossFit, kettlebells – they all come under the same thing. They all have the same benefits and variety. “People want variation in training – they want benefits.”

Crossfit is a fairly new, high-intensity workout involving excercises with and without weights, from kettlebell swings to weightlifting-style snatches. Participants can score their progress to compete with others. All this new-age exercise isn’t for everyone, warns Brendan. “Hardcore explosive exercises, you need a strong mind for it. Some of them are too hardcore for the average Joe.” Brendan says exercise regimes like this are good, but only as a complement to more traditional, weights-based training methods. “Ninety per cent of [clients], they want to look their best. “But if they want to achieve these goals, the majority of the time has to be spent on the core basics. The other new-age methods complement them.”

So, with that in mind, I had Brendan take me through a training combining some traditional and some new-age exercises. We started off with some traditional gym weight exercises. First, some incline bench presses. While managing to emasculate me by starting off with just the bar, Brendan eventually added more weight so I was lifting 60kg, with a lot of effort, shaking arms, and huffing and puffing. Brendan says these types of exercises build muscle on lots of different muscle groups. After that it was some lat pull-downs, which again work lots of muscle groups. This was a warm-up for the pull-ups which were to come next – pull-ups are a part of the CrossFit regime. Again with the emasculation, as I needed Brendan’s help to compete a set of 10.

From there it was more new-age exercises, with kettlebell swings to strengthen the hips, and horrible TRX jump squats where I lift my feet off the ground and pull myself up by the arms. The latter truly did need explosive power, and I could barely manage 10. Then Brendan got me on the exercycle to tire me out, more weights, and finished with a hellish combination of sit-ups and boxing. It wasn’t even an hour, and I felt like I’d been through the wringer, and as a fan of these new-age workouts, the extra weights had worked muscles I didn’t even know I owned. Well, as they say – no pain, no gain!

This article was originally published in March 2013.

Some fitness clubs that may interest you: 

OZFit www.ozfit.com.sg

Vanda Boxing  www.vandaboxing.com

Fitness Evolution www.fitnessevo.com

Rail Trail

 

Turn off busy Bukit Timah Road down a stony track that becomes a dusty one, pass a small black and white sign announcing “Community Use Site”, and ahead lies a jungle-lined trail. The leafy journey is so peaceful that you would not know you are travelling through one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

The trail is known as the Green Corridor, which stretches 25.3km from the north to the south of Singapore over what used to be Malaysia’s Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line.

If you are looking for somewhere to take the family out a weekend bike ride or nature walk, the corridor’s 4km section from Bukit Timah to Holland Drive, in either direction, is worth doing.

The Green Corridor trail is fantastic for families as the walk itself is entirely flat, and it’s cycle-friendly, except on rainy days when it gets muddy. The trail is relatively unpublicised, so you have some of it to yourselves.

This is a rare, easily accessible chance to enjoy the tropics as nature intended. There’s not a manicured plot of greenery in sight. Gaze at the exotic birdlife, such as the curly-tailed drongo or blue-winged kingfisher, but watch out for things lurking in the real jungle, such as snakes in long grass beside the trail, mosquitoes, and vicious ants.

Now and again, the roar of traffic or a glimpse of a housing estate reminds you that while you are in the wild, the concrete jungle lurks nearby.

 Some history: The unassuming narrow path looks as if it could well lead to a mud hut in Africa. Instead, it leads you to something equally as evocative – a cosy country cottage built of brick. Good grief, have you time-travelled to 1950s Basildon, in Blighty? No, the colonial cutie is the Bukit Timah Railway Station, from when the rail line was a vital transport link for tin and rubber, operating since the 1920s. The station, now closed, has now been gazetted for conservation.

In a quirk of history, the line and its land occupied by Malaysia, once ran through Singapore, from the lovely, neo-classical-styled station at Tanjong Pagar at the edge of the central business district, to Woodlands. From there, it went onwards across the causeway.

For many Singaporeans, the rail-line was a link to family in Malaysia. Some have told me of regularly making the journey, their excitement lulled by the rocking rhythm of the train as it slipped past tower blocks and factories, past migration checkpoints, and then up north, past palm oil plantations and zinc-roofed shacks.

The entire KTM line also holds a military significance. During World War II, amid battles in southern Malaya, the British abandoned their quaint rail stations one by one and retreated to Singapore as the Japanese invasion forces advanced. Australian troops there fought bravely, but soon, they, too, became part of the retreat.

However, there are no trains now. The year 2011 marked the end of the line, when Malaysia gave the rail land back to Singapore. Part of the deal was that Singapore handed over the physical iron tracks.

With all the tracks and stone ballast gone, early in 2012 some sections were opened to the public as nature trails.

How long the Green Corridor will remain before some of it is redeveloped is not known. But in the meantime, enjoy this legacy of colonial railway times – a nature trail in the city, with a history lesson. 

Getting there: If entering off Bukit Timah Road, go onto a side path by an over-bridge just before King Albert Park’s McDonalds, on the left looking towards Clementi Road. Park at the Cold Storage nearby. Plenty of buses stop at the over-bridge. For more info, go to www.ura.gov.sg/railcorridor/ or www.thegreencorridor.org/

 This article was originally published in October 2013.

Fables of the Exotic East at the Raffles Hotel

 

Kieran Nash meets the Raffles Hotel’s resident historian Leslie Danker, who has worked there for 41 years.

Actor John Wayne was “a nice man. Very tall – and humble. Soft spoken, you know?”

So says the Raffles Hotel’s resident historian Leslie Danker, a grandfatherly figure with a twinkle in his eye and 41 years of experience working at one of Asia’s most famous hotels.

Danker has an opinion on plenty of other famous people, too. Michael Jackson? “Very quiet. Strange.” Queen Elizabeth II? A very nice lady. Softly spoken.”

Jackie Chan? “A very nice, jovial man.”

This is a side-effect of being the longest-serving employee of a hotel with a long history – and now Danker is becoming part of the history himself.

He’s sitting at a side table in the Raffle’s grand lobby, looking as much a part of the furniture as the antique-looking chair he’s sitting on.

So how did he come to be here?

“I joined the hotel in 1972. When I joined, it was a completely different style of management.” Starting out in maintenance surplus, Danker worked his way through different departments, before becoming front office manager. After the hotel was listed as a national monument in 1987, a new company bought the hotel and was given the job of restoring it to its former glory. Recognising his love and passion for the place, the new owners kept him on as guest relations manager, the only employee to keep his job.

In that role, “a lot of people asked about the Raffles’ history. I didn’t have much information, as there was no Google at that time, so I went to the national library, but some of the facts were not accurate.” So Danker started researching, and eventually, ” the last two general managers told me I talk so much about the history so I’m going to change your designation to resident historian.”

Although recently his bosses have told him to slow down a bit, Danker takes people and groups on tours through the halls, filling them in on the history of this colonial landmark. As we get up from our seats and he shows me around, it’s plain to see there’s plenty of history here.

The founders of the hotel, the Sarkies brothers, weren’t even British, as one would imagine given the name and feel of the place. They were, in fact, Armenian.

With the opening of the Suez Canal more British people were coming here. Deciding against naming the hotel after themselves, the brothers realised the large British population here all knew of Stamford Raffles, and it would be better for business to name it after Singapore’s founder.

Where the hotel currently sits was a huge 10-bedroom bungalow overlooking the sea, which belonged to an Arab trader. The brothers decided to buy it and convert it into a hotel.

After converting it, and adding new wings to cope with demand, the brothers noticed that it was just too small, and demolished it in 1889 to make way for a new building.

Reopening in 1899, it was at the forefront of technology – the first building in Singapore to have electric lights and fans.

So marked the heyday of the hotel, a venue for grand balls, soirees, and escaped tigers.

In 1902, a tiger escaped from a travelling circus, and found its way under the Raffles’ billiards room to hide. Local sharpshooter and principal of the Raffles Institute Charles Phillips was called on to help, but had just returned from the governor’s ball, boozed up and a bit worse for wear. But, hearing lives were in danger, he marched over in his pyjamas, drew his Lee Enfield rifle and fired three times. “He missed. So he felt embarrassed. I thought, I must redeem my reputation. In the dark he could see the gleaming eyes and shot it between the eyes.”

Mr Phillips may have garnered fame from this event, but it wasn’t quite enough to have a suite named after him. That honour was reserved for more notable guests.

One is famed author Rudyard Kipling, who famously wrote “The food is as excellent as the rooms are bad.”

Another is playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham, who stayed three times.”He spent a lot of time writing. Before he left, he gave a beautiful quote about the hotel: ‘Raffles stands for all the fables of the exotic east’.”

As well as hosting some of the world’s most famous people, the hotel has also made people famous.

Ngiam Tong Boon isn’t a household name, but the drink he created – the Singapore Sling – sure is.

Ngiam noticed that British men would sit out on the hotel’s veranda and watch the women walk by. Now, at that time, women were not meant to be seen drinking. To make it seem as though they were drinking juice, he created a drink out of gin, cherry liqueur, pineapple juice, lime juice, cointreau, Benedictine, grenadine, and called it the Singapore Sling, “so the men could drink with the ladies”. And it’s this legacy that keeps people coming back today.

“A lot of tourists come here for Singapore Slings. Just like in Paris, you see the Eiffel Tower, in Singapore you see the Raffles Hotel. I think it’s the uniqueness of the hotel which attracts people. When people come to Singapore sightseeing, this is one of the spots the come.”

This article was originally published October 2013.