Mistress Of Puppets (DIY Slogan Tee)

Every now and then I get it into my head that I am capable of doing crafts. While I do possess some of the qualities of a skilled artisan, such as attention to detail and a certain obsessive nature, I inconveniently lack the “art” aspect of the word. But because Pinterest and the various lifestyle blogs I read make it seem as if I, too, can construct my own chic fashion or home accessories from nothing more than sequins, Mod Podge and an upcycled flour sack, I occasionally indulge this delusion a little further than my level of craft artistry can really justify. (This also happens with food, which is why I rarely photograph our delectably-plated repasts of ragout a la leftovers avec priced-to-clear boeuf et fridge-withered cilantro, and when I do attempt to, it …doesn’t end well.)

But I had some time on my hands a while back and freezer paper stencil tees (there are plenty of tutorials online so I won’t do a step-by-step one – here’s a simple guide for anyone else who wants to give it a try) didn’t look like they could be too hard, so I decided it was about time to try dancing with delusion again. I had a plain black Uniqlo tee, white fabric paint, a craft knife, a Daiso cutting mat, a rather underused iron, and some spongy things I bought from Art Friend, so clearly I had everything it took to construct haute couture.

A little background on the slogan, for those rarely about to rock:

After my friend Matt introduced me to the joys of doing this song in karaoke, it’s become one of the staples of my karaoke repertoire. But since people always seem to find it hard to believe that a female might attempt Metallica at karaoke, I thought it would increase my metal cred to make my status clear on a T-shirt. You know, like those fat ugly guys you see wearing “Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free” T-shirts.

Freezer paper stencil

Taiwan: Houtong Cat Village

In my recent attempts to be slightly better at blogging about my travels, I’ve found that the impetus to do a post either arises from wanting to provide value to other travellers doing their research online, or wanting to share photographs I took while travelling which may not necessarily be useful snapshots of “what you will see at ___ sight” but that I’m reasonably happy with nonetheless.

This post is because cats.

A village of cats.

Houtong is a small village in Taiwan, an easy train ride away from Taipei. It’s part of a group of former coal-mining villages which have now reinvented themselves for tourism. As uninspiring as this may sound, the villages are surrounded by rolling hills and waterfalls, have done up their abandoned mining facilities quite educationally, and are handily connected by the little Pingxi railway line, which you can travel all day for the pittance of 54NTD (day pass).

Houtong’s done a pretty good job with its coal-mining sights, but evidently decided at some point that it would obliterate all possible notions of being nothing more than a bleak industrial wasteland by cultivating and cosseting its fuzziest residents.

Mural of cats in mining carsPlease slow down, cats crossingNo dogs allowed

When you get off the train, one side of the tracks leads you to the visitors’ centre, a nicely done little coal-mining museum and some rather evocative mining ruins, and the other side leads you to the residential streets. There are plenty of cats to be seen on either side, but just in case you’d like some guidance, here’s a totally useful map.

Here be cats

Wandering around, at almost every turn you come across feeding dishes, little cat shelters  and of course the cats themselves, who were mostly very lazy on a rainy afternoon and content to sit around looking cute and snoozy for photos.

Snoozing cats, background cat houses

Just in case it has managed to elude you so far that cats are an important part of this village, there’s also a giant cat statue.

Giant cat statue on roof

In hindsight, I realize I should have used a smaller aperture for this photo because the depth-of-field is too shallow to effectively make the point that this cat is a real-life version of the giant statue seen faintly in the background. I was probably too overwhelmed by ZOMGADORRRRBBBBSS!!! in the moment.

Houtong village cat

Here is the village logo, which combines references to Houtong’s name (侯硐 means “monkey cave” in English), its mining past and its delightful present. Alec, who does not share my enthusiasm for disturbingly oversized cats, did not share my enthusiasm for this logo either. Humph.

Houtong village logo

I set my umbrella down in order to better photograph this cat. Naturally, it then decided that it can haz umbrella.

Ur umbrella iz nao mai umbrella

Most cats I saw in the village were shorthairs, similar to the strays we have in Singapore, but I did come across this regal chap guarding a doorway.

Orange you going to pet me?

MOAR CATS.

She sits, and sits, and sits, and sitsOh haiMuseum guard

To get to Houtong:
Take an east-bound local train out of Taipei Main station or Songshan station to Ruifang (瑞芳). If you can read Chinese, look on the digital displays for trains heading to Yilan (宜蘭), Hualien (花蓮) or Taidong (台東), but if not it may be easier to ask for help. I believe you can buy tickets in advance for a variety of trains (express vs local etc.) with different journey times, but we just took the next available train and paid with our EasyCards by tapping-in as usual at the ticket gates.

At Ruifang, there is a ticket office on the platform where you can buy the Pingxi line day pass. (If you used the EasyCard to pay for your Taipei – Ruifang ride, you can tap-out with your card on the platform near the ticket office without having to exit the station.)

From here, the Pingxi line sequence is:
Ruifang – Houtong – Sandiaoling – Dahua – Shihfen – Wanggu – Lingjiao – Pingxi – Jingtong

I might write more about the rest of our Pingxi line explorations in a separate post, but just in case I don’t get round to doing that, make sure to check train times as you plan your own explorations, because the trains aren’t always regularly spaced out and you could end up waiting around longer than you’d wanted to at one stop because you’ve just missed one train and the next will be in more than an hour’s time.

Till next time, here is a hoodie I spotted on the train out of Houtong.

As we left Houtong

Hong Kong Photoset: Street Shots

I’ve been interested in street photography for quite a while now, and especially influenced by the ideas discussed – often with brutal honesty – in image critique threads at the Hardcore Street Photography forum. Although my other posts about the Hong Kong trip have been intended more as useful guidance for other people planning their own trips than as “photography” posts per se, this one is just a collection of street shots I took on that trip. I’m happiest with the 3rd and the 9th shots because I think they best capture the kind of style I’m trying to develop in my photography (as opposed to more obvious shots like the 5th or 7th), but I would love to know your views on the photos, especially if your preferences are quite different from my own.

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Hong Kong Day 2: Sheung Wan Snapshots

The gaping maw of a sun-dried lizard. A hipster boutique window bust of Sun Yat Sen in a polka-dotted bow tie. A samfu-clad elderly gent sitting just inside the weathered shutters of his shop, reading the newspapers in soft evening light. It might just have been one of those times when the novelty of being on holiday somehow opens your eyes to the sort of things you’re blind to when you’re at home, but I really enjoyed the day we spent wandering around Sheung Wan.

Evening News(Yes, these are from the trip to Hong Kong we took, oh, nearly six months ago. No, I will never be as good at this travel blogging thing as The Everywhereist.)

The Image, Deconstructed

Each week, The Image, Deconstructed features a striking photo (usually, though not always, of a photojournalistic nature) and discusses the creation of that photo with the photographer who took it. I find the discussions interesting not just for the glimpse they give me into the world of photojournalism, but also for the detailed descriptions of what goes into working the scene and the examples of the less successful photos which get taken along the way to the killer shot. I have to admit, there’s nothing I find quite so encouraging as the visual proof that even fantastic photographers take shitty photos.

Here are the “deconstructions” of a few images I found particularly striking:

  • Alex Boerner’s beautiful depiction of a 101-year-old former painter, now bedridden, among her paintings.
  • Rich Joseph-Facun’s impeccably-composed photo of pilgrims at the Ganges River.
  • James Chance’s work at Manila’s North Cemetery (home to a living community of 2000 people) yields more than 1 striking photo. Although the headline photo is certainly dramatic, I prefer the surreality of the photo just after that.
  • Paulo Siqueira’s capture of a tender moment shared through the veil between an Egyptian woman and her baby is sweet, and the story of how he obtained access to meet and photograph this very conservative Muslim woman is interesting as well.

The Sense Of A Beginning

They say writing is a muscle which needs to be exercised in order to get stronger, and although I’m in the best physical shape I’ve been in for a long time (yay!), my writing muscles feel like slabs of lard. But it’s been silent here too long, and as always, the thing that’s been holding me back from just sitting down and writing a goddamn post is that peculiar inertia of perfectionism which renders the idea of watching all the Grumpy Cat videos an infinitely preferable prospect to the awful possibility of writing something that sucks.

But if you will forgive me for just embracing the suck and getting on with things, I would like to tell you about Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending. This won the Booker Prize in 2011 and the Guardian review will give you a decent idea of whether it’s the type of novel you’re in the mood for, but I’d caution against expecting too much from it. There is a plot twist so infuriating that I cast the book aside the moment I finished it and stormed out of the room to see if the Internet’s disgruntlement matched my own. Alec (who had read the book just before me and was asleep in bed next to me as I read) later said that even in the mists of sleep, when he heard my angry huff and little stomps, he knew exactly why.

So you’re probably wondering whether, given that Grumpy Cat’s Worst Monday Ever will only take up a few minutes of your crowded life and fill you with immediate joy, this imperfect book is worth bothering with. It is. The writing is fantastic and gave me one of those “How have I spent all these years not reading this author?!” moments, which I haven’t had since discovering Graham Greene many years ago. Even just the first few pages will give you a taste of Barnes’ craft – his descriptions of the protagonist’s boarding school environment include a teacher “whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom”, “a cautious know-nothing [schoolmate] who lacked the inventiveness of true ignorance” and this, which strikes me as an appropriate quote with which to end one year and start another:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

Dancing: The Crack I Took 32 Years To Get Addicted To

I’ve been meaning to write about dancing, and the role it’s come to play in my life, for a long time. And although what’s triggered me to finally sit down and write the damn post is something as trivial (and potentially self-serving, as you will see when you read on) as a coupon deal for the dance studio where I spend a lot of my time, I promise you that my main motivation for this post goes way beyond referral credits.

* * *

I spent the first twenty years of my life immersed in music and words, but the intensity of my involvement in those artistic pursuits was oddly balanced out by an almost complete lack of involvement in the worlds of dancing and the visual arts. I never went for ballet or art classes, and never thought of myself as someone who could dance or who had any visual creativity at all. My identity (insofar as I might have defined it in terms of what I was good at) was firmly founded on thinking of myself as a pianist, violinist, writer and debater. Also a total champ at Tumblepop and a virtuoso on the monkeybars, but that’s not really relevant to the topic of this post.

20-year-old me would have been extremely surprised to discover 32-year-old me listing dancing and photography as the two hobbies she overwhelmingly spends her free time on.

“Are you actually good at either of these things?” Michelle v20 would wonder.

“Nowhere near how good you are at the things you spent the first twenty years of your life doing!” Michelle v32 would reply merrily. “But somehow that’s what makes dancing and photography even more fun!”

* * *

So, dancing. (I’ll save photography for another time.) You can skim my “dance”-tagged posts if you want, but the tl;dr summary is: I discovered the funfest that is lindy hop at 20, danced it sporadically for the next 7 years or so, got lazy after marriage and didn’t do any dancing for nearly 4 years, took up West Coast Swing (that’s just 3 examples of how versatile the dance is in terms of what music you can dance to – and no, none of those dances were choreographed, they’re just people having fun improvising) in 2011 and that ended up being the gateway drug to spending more time, money and effort on dancing in 1 year than I ever had before. Besides West Coast Swing, which I’ve focused most of my energy on, I’ve also dipped my toe into hip hop, dancehall, exotic dancing, general body movement, Brazilian zouk and very recently tango, and have hugely enjoyed my limited experiences with those too.

Like I said, I’m not particularly good at any of this. I would describe myself as having utterly average levels of physical coordination, although my musical background does at least mean that discernment of counts, bars and phrasing is more or less hardwired into my brain. (This does NOT necessarily translate into me always moving my body on time, or having the dance vocabulary to express the phrasing my brain understands, but I still hold on to little blessings like that when the going gets tough.) And I’ve often wondered why the hell I’m slaving at something I have no strong natural aptitude in, rather than something which might come more easily to me, like practising my turntablism or picking up jazz piano.

But here’s the weird thing – the less natural aptitude you have for something, the more satisfying it is when you actually see yourself improve at it! Let’s take spinning, my ongoing dance nemesis. Do you know how awesome it feels to realize you have gone from “worst freaking spinner in the class, such that the guys either have to not spin you much or just keep compensating for your graceless veering off-course” to “able to keep up with average spinning demands, such that the guys now frequently spin you multiple times and it doesn’t end in epic failure”? IT FEELS PRETTY DAMN AWESOME. *does little spin*

The other big source of awesome which dancing has added to my life is the particular physical pleasure of partner dancing, which I strongly believe you can’t even begin to understand unless you’ve given it a try yourself. I really struggle with describing this to someone who’s never experienced it, but it’s completely different from what it feels like to just go crazy by yourself on a club dancefloor. It’s about experiencing the physical sensation of momentum with someone else – like how kids hold hands and spin each other round and round, except with far more different ways to get that feeling of “WHEEEEEE!”

* * *

Where am I going with all this? It’s basically my explanation for why I’m about to recommend a currently available coupon deal to anyone in Singapore who – like me – has never really thought of themselves as being able to dance, to whom dancing may just seem like something “other people” do. There are, of course, plenty of dance coupon deals out there, and plenty more places to learn dancing if you don’t limit yourself to somewhere offering a deal. But this deal is for classes at Mosaic Dance Studio, where I spend lots of my time, and that’s why I know it’s a deal worth recommending.

For $20, you get to try out 2 weeks of unlimited dance and fitness classes. The instructors are great, and the community is very friendly (which, to me, is actually quite important in sustaining my interest in a dance – I drifted away from lindy hop partly because I didn’t have much fun within its community, although I still adore the dance). If, at the end of 2 weeks, you’re not really feeling this whole dance thing, you’ve lost $20 and some time. But there’s a very real possibility, I think, that you’ll be surprised by how much you’ve enjoyed it.

If you go through my referral link to sign up at the deal site before you purchase the deal, you get $5 credit at the deal site and I get $10 credit.

Alternatively, if for whatever reason you don’t want to try that deal, but you do decide to try classes at Mosaic Dance Studio at some point as a result of this post, I think I also get some sort of referral reward (if you tell them about this post when you first register with them) though I can’t quite remember what. If you do this, you should of course let me know so that I can say hi and let you laugh at my spins in real life.

I realize my mentioning any of this referral credit stuff may come across as a bit tacky, and if you think it is, then feel totally free to ignore it. But please don’t ignore the main suggestion I’m making – if there is ever space in your life to fall unexpectedly in love with a new hobby, give dancing a try, somewhere, somehow, sometime.

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Categorised as Joys Tagged

Pollen & Photobombing: An Afternoon at Gardens by the Bay

Even if you’re a lazy couch potato who hasn’t had any interest in going to Gardens By The Bay because it would probably involve being outdoors for a prolonged period during daylight, when your husband announces he’s booked lunch at Pollen just because he wants to spoil you a bit, you say “That sounds wonderful, dear, I’d LOVE to go to Gardens by the Bay!”

There are probably tons of spectacular photos of the Gardens out there by now – no doubt taken by the intrepid shutterbugs we saw toting their tripods all over the place – and mine won’t measure up at all. But here they are anyway.

This is the Rhug estate pork belly with broad beans, slow cooked squid and chorizo we had as part of the Pollen set lunch. As someone who isn’t actually that keen on pork or fatty meat, this was still quite tolerable for me because the fat was much less sickeningly rich than it might have appeared in the photo, and the beans, squid and chorizo complemented it perfectly. It wasn’t the best pork belly dish I’ve ever had (that honour belongs to the “slow cooked pork belly, potato puree, black pudding and sauce Robert” I had at Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner), but it was among the best. And yes, that big keropok-resembling thing behind it is crackling. Omnomnom.

Pork belly (Pollen, Singapore)

This dessert of chocolate roast cocoa nib ice cream with jasmine parfait and cherry might seem like just another chocolate dessert, but the jasmine parfait gave it a dimension I hadn’t expected. It didn’t take long for my tongue to go from “wow, this tastes interesting and different” to “why doesn’t every chocolate dessert come with jasmine parfait”? I loved this, and I’m not even that keen on chocolate. And, it wasn’t even the best dessert of the meal! (It was just the dessert I didn’t completely suck at photographing.)

Dessert (Pollen, Singapore)

The other dishes we had were:

  • Duck consomme with slow cooked quail egg and lapsong souchong tea (starter; rich and satisfying)
  • Roasted baby beetroot salad with goats curd and pine nuts (starter; nice but not cataclysmically tastier than the beetroot salad we make at home, even though the ingredients they are using are obviously several million times better than ours)
  • Roasted cod, creamed olive oil potatoes, lemon conserve and sauce grenoblaise (really good even though neither of us is that keen on cod)
  • Crispy burnt lemon meringue with cucumber sorbet (best dessert of the meal and one of the best desserts we’ve ever had)

After the meal I was very pleased to find out that as patrons of the restaurant, we could get into the Flower Dome for free. I may not be very interested in flowers but I am absolutely riveted by the idea of getting something for nothing, so I was all like OH HELL YEAH LET’S EXPLORE US SOME FLOWERS!

For about an hour, anyway.

I’m more of a cactus person, really. When I saw these two, the little easy-listening radio station in my head started playing Sometimes When We Touch. And then, because little easy-listening radio stations never last very long in my head, the retro porn music channel started up instead.

Sometimes When We Touch...

I’m not sure why, but when I saw this, the retro porn music channel switched to a crackly sputtering one with an old British man reciting Jabberwocky. (No, I don’t know what Pollen put in those desserts.)

Twas brillig and the slithy toves...

I’d brought along the ultra-wide converter I don’t use enough, and had some fun playing with it.

Flower Dome (Gardens By The Bay, Singapore)

Outside, I strolled down something marked as a viewpoint for the Supertree grove and was quite amused at the particular view it gave, which is basically a real tree photobombing whatever photos you might want to take of the huge fake trees. Nature can be such a troll.

Real tree photobombs photo of fake trees

Evening came, and with it an intense need for teh ping and a return to my couch. So Alec brought the wife he occasionally refers to as “Mrs Boo Radley” home, but not before she thanked him for the lovely afternoon out and admitted the Gardens by the Bay weren’t so bad after all.

Supertree Silhouettes (Gardens by the Bay, Singapore)

Aiyoyo, Aoyama!

Am I just fussy, or did I get a disappointing bowl of ramen from Menya Aoyama, the newest stall at Ramen Champion? Compare the menu’s depiction of their Special Tonkotsu Ramen to the bowl I was actually served.

Menya Aoyama Ramen - Photo vs Reality

To me, the shredded leeks are important because their fresh, sharp taste cuts through the richness of the tonkotsu broth. As you can see, I got barely any in my bowl. I’m aware that this sort of discrepancy between photo and reality is par for the course in many other F&B contexts, but given the importance which is placed on presentation of the food in Japanese cuisine, I  have higher expectations of a Japanese eatery than I do for McDonalds.

If you’re wondering whether I just opened my mouth and asked for more leeks, no, I didn’t. I didn’t really scrutinize my bowl when I collected it at the counter and only realized how lacklustre it looked once I’d carried it to my table some distance away. And I was starving, so I just started eating hoping it would taste better than it looked.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. The chashu was really, really bland, more or less tasteless except for an odd chemical tang I can’t put my finger on. The soup was okay, but again, blander in taste than the soup from Bario, Iroha, Ikkousha or Gantetsu. (Obviously I can’t compare Taishoken because tsukumen-style “soup” is totally different.) The egg was also okay, but similarly unremarkable. The noodles were fine. Had I ordered this bowl of ramen in a food court for $6, I would have shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well, you get what you pay for.”  The problem is that I paid $15.

Hong Kong Photoset: Funerary Offerings (Sheung Wan)

On our second day in Hong Kong, we spent several hours wandering through Sheung Wan, where I found the shops selling funerary offerings quite amusing. (For anyone who isn’t familiar with this practice, some Chinese burn paper representations of real world things for dead relatives in the belief that the burnt offerings will be sent to those relatives in the afterlife.) Although these shops exist in Singapore too, I haven’t had any personal experience with such practices – we burnt “hell money” for my paternal grandparents at the time of their deaths, but never any paper goods – and I suppose there’s just that odd thing at work where something you don’t pay much attention to in your own country suddenly becomes exotic and interesting when you’re a camera-brandishing tourist somewhere else.

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