On the Heels of Nature

Superb weather today for a jog to torch my binge on Chinese New Year goodies before the festivities even begun. It’s the Year of the Snake but I’m snacking like a pen full of pigs.

Since my not-so-recent woes with a bad neck that has rendered me ungymmable, the only retaliation I have against my runaway appetite was cardio laps at the pool or any distance my legs would carry me. On this sun-drenched day, a long-haul jog itched my chicken feet so I decided to take on the running terrain of MacRitchie Reservoir.

Macaque monkeys run wild at their waterside sanctuary and give city dwellers like me the thrill of encountering wildlife.

After I did a photoshoot at the reservoir some months back to test-drive the Casio Exilim ZR200 compact camera, my affection for the oldest reservoir in Singapore was rekindled. The waterside oasis is a less than 15-minutes bus ride from home yet I wasn’t visiting it often enough. Jogging here provides a much needed escape from urbanity and really refreshing.

But the bad thing is, I tend to do more photographing than running. A one-hour jog usually get extended beyond two hours with all that camera breaks to snap anything from scenery to flora and fauna. Then again, the beauty at MacRitchie Reservoir is a welcomed distraction and definitely made the run more interesting!

Say cheese? This fella was shy at first but when it saw my handphone pointing at it to snap pics, it promptly moved towards me through the foliage. I think it wanted to snatch my phone so I backed away. After a few rounds of our back-and-forth tango, it stood there and opened its mouth as if to scold me!

Felt great running so close to a body of water with the dusking sun reflected on ripples of gold.

Awesomeness!

My favourite photo from this evening’s jog. I took a new trail and came across this scene just as the sun was dipping behind a low hill. I was so awed by the beauty before me.

The run led me by the waters and into the dense forest. Light was fast failing and being caught in the forest when it’s dark unnerved me. So I ran faster…

… and continued to stop to take photos. I should be running but this bald tree rooted my feet. All around it, every plant was leafy green but this one stood solemnly naked by itself. “Don’t leaf me alone,” I seem to hear it say. I was all alone on the trail with nary an idea of where I was in the forest too.

My heart was racing. Not from jogging but the panic of still being in the thick of the forest while darkness weighed in. I wanted to backtrack my route of the past 1.5 hours but decided to continue forward. Boy am I glad I did! Fifteen minutes later, I saw the glimmer of electric lights. I’m back to the comforts of organised chaos. In life, some people take a long tme to reach their destinations on foot while others get there faster by cars, but ultimately we get there. The speed is vastly different. So are the rewards.

Sweat drenched and following a road that I had no idea where it leads, I was enchanted by this scene that juxtaposed the light from a street lamp with the ample moon. They seem to be of the same size here, but we know the scale and reach of their illumination differ at a level beyond comparison… Kinda like what small minds see, and what big hearts show.

I got more than just a cardio workout with this jog as I exercised my eyes and spirit at the same time with beautiful encounters of landscapes both external and internal.

Much of the paths I’d trodden were new to me and although I didn’t know where I was most of the time, having only one road ahead of me provided a consolation that while I’m clueless, I’m not totally lost. If only life is just as clear-cut!

Will definitely jog here more often from now on. And leave all image recording devices at home!

WE 2010 : ASEAN Pavilions

Of the more than 200 country pavilions and themed pavilions, I visited only 30 of them. That’s less than a quarter of this phenomenal event, but it was still plenty to experience, record and learn from. So since I started talking about the country pavilions with Singapore’s participation, I thought I’d follow up with a review of the pavilions by the other 9 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

As with the thoughts about the Singapore Pavilion and all subsequent posts about pavilions, I have to qualify that the opinions expressed are merely based on my personal experiences as a visitor. Just as we all have a different vision of what a perfect world should be, so will opinions vary on what makes a pavilion worthy of visit.

While some pavilions left a lasting impression on me, others failed to pique my interest. And having seen 30 of them, my basis of comparison while limited, draws on after-thoughts about what was interesting and what was as interesting as watching paint dry.

But one thing I do keep a look out for is the feel of a pavilion’s character and personality. That X-factor. Its gusto. Its voice. Does it read me a fascinating and unforgettable tale of the country it represents, or is it a textbook narration of its history, sociology, economy, anthropology, political ideology… zzzZZZzzz… zzzzzz…

In other words, is the pavilion a Nerd? A Stud? A Plain Jane, or a Beauty Queen? Well, here are 9 Asian pavilions I shall attempt to characterize and they are arranged in the order from Z to X…

Brunei Pavilion

My very first step on the pavilion arena on the very first morning was at Zone B’s Asian Square. The Singapore Pavilion was directly across and I was next to the Brunei Pavilion. While I was standing there, stopped in my tracks by encountering the larger-than-life pavilions for the first time, trying to comprehend the awesomeness of size and space all around, forgetting to breathe… and my reverie got interrupted by a female voice hawking a pavilion.

Brunei Pavilion

Sounded almost like a lelong at a pasar malam. In all my 3.5 days visiting the Expo, I didn’t hear any other pavilion being touted this way. I didn’t succumb to the tempting invitation of ‘no queue’ and visited Singapore first. When I returned to visit Brunei after lunch, there was still no queue. And the female staff was still advertising.

I walked right in to Brunei Pavilion and I liked it. It was a burning 38°C outside and I liked that the spaciousness and lack of crowd kept the air-conditioning cold. Yup, that’s about it. The pavilion was good only for enjoying some air-con.

Standard fare

After I went one round of its exhibits, I understood why there was no queue. There wasn’t anything much to see. The pavilion was bright and neat with the deployment of standard exhibition panels, shelves and plasma TVs to loop touristy videos. The one eye-catching thing was the blue-lighted floor designs that I assume represented water since the pavilion’s theme was something to do with nature.

Brunei 3

Brunei is a pretty rich country so it’s kinda surprising that the pavilion looked like it didn’t require much financial effort. Moreover, the choice of exhibition topics such as the plain listing of the 8 national strategies of development was too academic.

Character : Nerd married to Plain Jane

Laos Pavilion

Laos shared a pavilion with Myanmar in Zone B’s Asia Joint Pavilion III. I was there around 9:00 pm and it was closed by then. I hadn’t planned to visit the 2 pavilions but wandered into their shared space unwittingly.

Laos Pavilion

Though I didn’t get to see what’s inside, the attempt to dress-up and represent its culture at the entrance even though it’s just a very small exhibition area seemed to hold a promise of not too shabby contents inside.

Character : Jock (potentially)

Myanmar Pavilion

I popped by Myanmar’s section on the way out of AJPIII and it was really plain. It felt more like an exhibition booth rather than to be classified as a pavilion. I always have a soft spot for Myanmar because of the controversy surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi’s 14 years of house arrest imposed by the Burmese military junta. I hope to visit the home country of this moder-day freedom fighter one day.

Myanmar Pavilion

One of the 4 Southeast Asian nations with the unsavoury association to the Golden Triangle (an illegal opium-producing area that spans Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar), the country’s culture is greatly influenced by its surrounding neighbours, especially in religion.

Myanmar scene

One of the most interesting things to see at the pavilion was the intricate wood carvings of celestial beings and Taoist deities such as Nuwa (女媧), who’s believed to have made mankind from clay. However, their display couldn’t have been more inappropriate. They were really beautiful works of art crowded unceremoniously together on shelves and on the floor.

But the most atonishing exhibit of all would be the brutal honesty in presenting the nation’s health program. I can’t hear what was being said but the uncomfortable images depicting surgery and various stages of eye diseases really stood out at the World Expo where only beauty has a place in the sun.

Character : Plain Jane

Malaysia Pavilion

When contemplating the Malaysia Pavilion, this saying kept flashing in my mind… “Good from far, far from good.” In a distance, its arches bit an impressive crescent against the skyline. But the closer I got, the more it loses its magic. And once inside, I kept having the urge to look for a shopping basket or trolley. Felt like I entered Carrefour.

Malaysia Pavilion

Being a bridge away from Singapore, Malaysia is my most visited country. And I like going there for its eclectic conglomeration of urban built-ups dipping their feet in the rooted heritage of colonial structures, old shophouses and five-foot ways. Of course Singapore has this kind of scene too, but in Malaysia, it just feels more authentic. Besides, our neighbour has lots of natural, untamed reserves to explore.

Pavilion set-up

I can see that the pavilion tried to capture Malaysia’s multi-faceted charm. Unfortunately, it turned out to be nasi lemak without the coconut milk; it had the look, but not the flavor. There’re too many prints and not enough real artefacts. Even the ‘forest’ was made up of plastic trees and plants which made it look more of a handicrafts store, less of a tropical rainforest paradise.

Supermarket interior

When visiting the pavilion, one of the interior plan that made me scratch my head was a staircase linking the first floor to the second. It’s one staircase for going up and down so it got pretty crowded and I was stuck in the human traffic for a while half-way up the steps. Such a smart design. Or maybe the creators didn’t anticipate such a huge crowd.

Malaysia scene

The 2nd level was somewhat of a cocoa showroom with some half-baked exhibit to explain the cocoa-making process and a cocoa drink sampling counter. Sales was brisk. Moving from the supermarket section of the pavilion, we come to the home and décor section with a stylishly designed modern-Malaysian living room, bedroom and bathroom.

There was another small exhibition of art and craft that seem like an afterthought, and more retail and souvenir counters around. The pavilion’s theme was 1 Malaysia. Well, it sure was the 1 place to shop.

Character : Nerd

Cambodia Pavilion

Here’s a diamond in the rough. The pavilion’s exterior was nothing to shout about but the interior was lavish with the cream of what put Cambodia on the tourist map. Perhaps that’s the strategy of the pavilion, to trick visitors into having low expectations and then wow them.

Cmmbodia Pavilion

Although more could have been done to hide the exposed ceiling to create a more engrossing feeling of being Lara Croft, but the thrill of seeing partial replicas of the famous architectural relics in Siem Reap made up for it.

Siem Reap replicas

There was the Cambodian Naga, the smiling face from the Bayon, the gigantic roots of a strangler fig at Ta Prohm, and a model of Angkor Wat. It momentarily brought back memories of Siem Reap through the excitement of recognizing what was being replicated. If you would like to know about my Siem Reap adventures, please click here.

Cambodia scene

While the Cambodia Pavilion wasn’t very big, it really gave visitors a glimpse of what’s it like to visit its many UNESCO World Heritage sites of towering temples and ancient carvings.

Even the small space within the pavilion worked to its advantage because that’s how it felt within the walls of the ancient structures. The pavilion was a time capsule.

Character : Jock in drag as Plain Jane

Philippines Pavilion

When I first glanced around the Asian Square, I thought the Philippines Pavilion was actually an administrative centre for deaf and mute visitors because of the hands printed on the walls. I mistook them for sign language.

Then I realised it was Philippines’ pavilion to the theme of Performing Cities. The pavilion design looked rather bland during the day. Even when it was lighted up at night, it didn’t have any jaw-dropping effect.

Philippines Pavilion

There wasn’t a queue so I got in pretty quickly and it immediately felt like I entered a club or live band lounge of some kind. Serve up some alcoholic concoctions and the whole experience would be perfect!

Club scene

There was a main stage where dance and musical performances took place and other performing platforms for the showcasing of the Filipinos’ innate talent in singing. Apart from watching liveshows, the pavilion offered a collection of Filipino art laid out in a casual and accessible manner. If only there was an open bar in there…

Character : Jock

Vietnam Pavilion

Sitting next to the AJPIII (which housed Laos and Myanmar’s pavilions) in zone B, Vietnam’s pavilion was easily the most impressive in terms of building material. The quaint little pavilion made up of bamboo and rattan incites a sort of calm without the use of minimalism, a visual style that often personifies Zen.

Vietnam Pavilion

I hadn’t planned on visiting Vietnam Pavilion but it turned out to be a very pleasant and delightful encounter. I simply love the way it looked on the outside and inside (although the interior did remind me of a prayer hall).

Inside the pavilion

There was practically nothing to read in the pavilion about Vietnam except for the interpretative messages about its culture from the many huge vases and art sculptures.

Art & decor

Somehow, I can’t help but feel that the Vietnamese preferred not to pen down a definition of what is life, but to let it be an open exploration with each visitor forming his/her own meaning through the country’s pieces of art. But one thing’s for sure, religion plays a big part.

Character : Beauty Queen

Indonesia Pavilion

My first impression was that the Indonesian pavilion looked kinda bare with a whole lot of empty space. The open concept defied my early preconceived image of what a pavilion should look like… that it should have 4 walls enclosing all exhibits and design elements. But the pavilion was hollowed out for outsiders to look into its various levels and layout.

Indonesia Pavilion

With so much ’empty space’, I imagined that the pavilion won’t have much to showcase, but the pavilion was one of the more interesting ones to visit in terms of the richness of content and variety of exhibitory techniques. There was a surprise at every turn!

Natural texture

At 4-storeys, the pavilion was the tallest at the Asian Square and was really effective in communicating its environmental leanings. An interesting feature was the combination of various natural building materials such as bamboo, palm leaves, and wood chips for the pavilion’s walls, flooring and some fixtures.

Nature & technology

Bamboo all the way

Of all the pavilions, I thought Indonesia was the most successful in synthesizing nature with technology to create a seamless journey in discovering Indonesia’s native natural-scapes as well as digital edge.

Character : Jock best friends with Nerd

Thailand Pavilion

The Thai pavilion was my favourite amongst the ASEAN gathering in terms of entertainment value, ability to wow, and leaving a lasting impression. A guided visit with 3 shows in 3 different theatrical format, the pavilion was definitely worth the 2-hours queue time.

Once visitors entered the pavilion, they were greeted by an animation of the pavilion’s mascot, Tai, while waiting for the first theatre doors to open. It endeared itself to the visitors through a very lively but brief introduction about Thailand and the pavilion. Tai appeared again later in another show segment about Thai history and diplomatic ties with China.

Thailand Pavilion

When I stepped into the first theatre, I could hear grasps. Before us was a large water curtain cascading into a pool below. The sound of water splashing filled the room. The show was projected onto 4 screens shaped like jigsaw pieces (although I felt the odd shape wasn’t necessary) in the middle and onto the pool.

Vertical fountain

After the show, we were directed to a second theatre that featured projection on 3 sides and a huge, animatronic puppet Indrajit, the mythological warrior that stands guard at the entrances of many Thai temples.

The interesting part about this second show was the interaction between the puppet with the projected animation of Tai and what looked like Guan Gong, the Chinese god of war. The 3 characters talked to each other and created a multi-textured presentation.

Great shows

The last theatre played a 4D show. We’re all familiar with 3D by now and the fourth D is the addition of real physical experiences that complimented a show’s content. In Thailand’s case, I felt wind blowing in my face when the show talked about beaches, sprinkles of water when the scene showed rain, and the smell of fragrant jasmines when a basket of the flower was tossed into the air. Amazing experience! Love the pavilion as much as I love visiting Thailand.

Character : Jock married to Beauty Queen

WE 2010 : Singapore Pavilion

The unconscious spirit of patriotism marched me to the Singapore Pavilion. This was my very first stop at the Shanghai World Expo. I’ve heard bad reviews and that it is not worth the effort, but being Singaporean, I’ll still support. I’d like to find out what worked, and why it was slammed by critics.

Forming a square in Zone B with 7 other pavilions (Malaysia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand, and Australia), my first impression of the Singapore Pavilion was that it was compact and cut a rather interesting silhouette as compared to the surrounding pavilions. It reminded me of a hi-tech, futuristic durian; its circular design seeming to sit as a small silver disc at this huge world fair (a reflection of Singapore’s position as a little red dot on the world map perhaps?).

Futuristic & cool

Urban Symphony is the central theme of Singapore’s message at this year’s Expo to encapsulate the harmonious success of our multi-cultural, multi-talent society. The pavilion design is a “Smart Musicbox” (instead of the silver durian I thought it was) and is divided into 3 levels – interactive multimedia stations on the ground floor, a video presentation on the 2nd level, and a rooftop “Hanging Garden”. Click here for more about the Singapore Pavilion.

If you’re a Singaporean passport holder, bring it along to the pavilion for priority entry. Apart from skipping the queue, you can also get your passport stamped with the pavilion’s emblem. My colleague got the stamp on page 45 of her passport to mark Singapore’s 45th birthday. I thought that’s pretty meaningful. Didn’t bring my travel document along so I missed getting stamped.

Things to expect

Of all the pavilions I’ve visited, Singapore had the most interactive features such as using an oval card collected at the entrance to ‘capture’ projected images (symbolizes capturing the Singapore dream), a series of 4 drums that activated projections of food, designs and icons of Singapore when hit at the same time (symbolizes unity of 4 races), an arcade-style F1 driving game, and some bo liao 3D animations which I had no idea what they do.

At the Singapore Pavilion, there are very few stand-and-see exhibits. Visitors must do some work in order to fully enjoy the pavilion experience; just as how we have to constantly work in order to survive in Singapore.

Catch the Singapore dream

While I thought the symbolic intentions embedded into the design of the various interactive stations were clever, I felt their meaning may have been lost. A lot of people, including some of my colleagues, didn’t understand why there’s a need for 4 drummers and those who couldn’t find enough people to play, couldn’t activate the projections.

Moreover, the static projections were kinda small so they lacked that boomz factor. Coupled with the very ‘National Day’ feel of the permanent graphic displays and dull dressing of the pavilion, no wonder the Urban Symphony sounded more like a lullaby rather than a masterpiece.

And to add a bad chord to the sleepy orchestra, the show presentation on the 2nd level could put any chronic insomniacs into coma. The show featured an interview with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on Singapore’s water issues. With all due respect, MM Lee is an interesting speaker to listen to especially on the lessons and reasons behind his decisions made for Singapore. But to devote an entire show to talk about our early sewage problem and how we solved the water problem fitted better in a lecture hall for urban planning. Definitely not in tune with Urban Symphony. While I was there, half the audience left before the show even ended.

Good intention, bad execution

I guess at an event like the World Expo, there isn’t enough time to appreciate meaning. People just want to be entertained and wow-ed visually. Then again, the scale and method of execution for the exhibits are inextricably determined by budget.

Costing S$30 million in construction and operations, Singapore’s budget paled in comparison to its neighbouring Australia Pavilion which cost US$75 million in construction cost alone. I’ll post about the Australian pavilion later. It is my favourite from all that I’d seen. (Just as a point of reference, the superhot Japan Pavilion cost US$140 million). Perhaps Singapore’s modest sum was due to a lack of sponsorship interest from local companies at a time of economic recession and uncertainty.

Mediocre overall

So what’s the best feature of the Singapore Pavilion? I would say it’s the “Hanging Garden”. I didn’t find it interesting at the point of visit but after having seen how some countries attempted to create a garden landscape at their pavilions, Singapore’s very lush and flowery rooftop oasis trumped them all.

On the whole, I wouldn’t say that the Singapore Pavilion is bad, just a tad too intellectual. The pavilion design is unique, but the lack of imagination in interior décor and air-conditioning (only the theatre was air-conditioned) couldn’t sustain visitors’ interest. The addition of a mascot, Liu Lian Xiao Xing (榴莲小星), didn’t help elevate interest and I pitied the person inside the costume during the Shanghai heatwave. (I find that creating a mascot when the product doesn’t need it to be a trait of lazy marketers.)

Nevertheless, even though the Singapore Pavilion didn’t take my breath away, I still take pride in its symbolic message of achieving greatness when people work together; when the different instruments in an orchestra cooperate, we can play a soothing lullaby or an uplifting allegro anytime!

And here’s a musical rojak of a theme song for Singapore’s participation in this year’s World Expo.

For more photos of the Expo and Singapore Pavilion, please visit my album Shanghai World Expo 2010.

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