a new day

Image by J

J wrote this on his FB:


This is a translation into English:

A few days ago, while having lunch at the hawker centre where I live, I bumped into the helper who works at the Western food stall. Let's call him Meng. In any case, since he's no stranger, I wished him a happy lunar new year in advance. He shrugged and replied, "it's easy for the new year to pass, after all, it's only a couple of days.  Nothing remarkable. What's difficult is trying to get by every single day for the rest of the year."

It got me thinking that whether it's the lunar new year or another festive occasion, perhaps one of its purposes is simply to break the monotony and grind of our daily life. And if we don't even pause and make some effort to observe these occasions, perhaps we will always be weighed down and never see pass the strains and stresses of our daily lives.

Photo: Pa J goes to visit Uncle Yeh to tailor two to three pairs of new trousers ahead of every lunar new year season. This year, J went along.


alone at Bras Basah

Bras Basah Complex is my favourite place for wandering alone. It is heaven for loners, a paean to the joys of spending time alone, a refuge for those still learning to do so, but also a reminder of how being alone is a necessary part of growing (up or old).

Which is why Bras Basah Complex is - at its heart - a Complex of bookstores. The old timers bear such heroic and hopeful names: union, friendship, youth and the younger Basheer. The newcomers speak a language naturally closer to today's desires: popular, Socrates, or rather, cat(s). You are alone but never lonely in the worlds that books contain, and in the knowledge - of self, others, the world - that you gain.

Surrounding the bookstores are other shops that promise self-improvement. Not of the financial kind, but of the spirit, mind and body. There are the old art supplies stores that smell of ink, paper and stone, hidden by the ever-expanding Art Friend. And stationary shops that supply not only the office but retail harmonicas, ukuleles and fountain pens. Because these are the tools you need to create your own worlds and champion your rebellions - resilience and resistance. 

Of course the function of commerce necessitates the presence of printing shops and event collateral suppliers today at the Complex. But even with these shops there is a sense of DIY. 

Then there are the opticians. Because the greatest hazard of reading is looking like a nerd.

The last kind of shops at Bras Basah Complex bear a similar fate as bookstores, battling the digital stare! On the Complex's ground floor are a handful of watch and clock shops. The watch, like the fountain pen, was the mark of the learned and accomplished man, and today, the wealthy man. Perhaps even more so today, time, like knowledge, is a commodity, a luxury, and a function of the economy. But Bras Basah Complex gives us other experiences of time. The cuckoo clocks and Casio alarm clocks allow the romance of time as memory; in music time as rhythm; and books the suspension of time. Still they are illusions all. As is my illusion of being alone in a crowded lunchtime Bras Basah.


Furrie & Shortie Pre-orders!

An amused reader. Image by J.

[UPDATE: See Neighbourhoods for details. Limited copies of the book are still available for sale at BooksActually, City Book Room, Basheer, Woods in the Books, Gallery&Co (National Gallery), Supermama (at Esplanade), Grassroots Book Room and Woods in the Books.]

Finally, Furrie and Shortie will be meeting you in Issue #1 of their comic this December!

Issue #1: To Be The Most Wonderful You/做最美好的自己.  Furrie and Shortie’s everyday adventures that make the most of society and each other’s idiosyncrasies will make you smile. 

Check out the special illustrations by some of our faves Holycrap, James Tan, MessyMsxi, Theseus Chan and Wu Yanrong* in the book! Together with those artists who are donating their fees, this project will adopt 2 needy families to receive monthly food packs for a year through the charity organisation Food from the Heart.  

Pre-order now for the early bird price $28 (usual $30). 1st 200 copies contain a free Furrie or Shortie temporary tattoo (usual $3.50). Email info@ampulets.com with your order. 

Us amps have been drawing this comic for the past year and J designed the book. It's not hard to guess the inspiration for this...but it slowly grew as a way for us to share our observations on friendship, family and the changing world around us.

Some early drawings we shared on FB are below. All text in Chinese will be translated in the book...and of course, J has made sure the book design will be sui


city of books, Taipei

At Gu Ling Street

Taipei has always struck me as a reading kind of city. Maybe it's because it is hard to ignore the Eslite bookstores that seem to be in every part of the city. Which city can boast of a 24hour bookstore in one of its most prime shopping districts? Or that its bookstore chain also operates a hotel in the estate of a fancy restored tobacco factory?

But Taipei is more than Eslite.

It has a lively publishing sector that translates many of the latest foreign titles within a year or so. And in some ways, although it is not immune from the general demise of reading and books, its domestic market is secure because the Taiwanese use the traditional script (fan ti) versus China's simplified script.  And like many enterprises in Taiwan, I think its books and publishing reflects its spirit of independence.

And so with bookstores. These are a few independent bookstores that we've discovered over the years through the recommendations of friends, websites and magazines.

Bleu & Books

青鳥(Bleu & Books) is in the HuaShan creative and cultural district, a cluster of warehouses restored to house eateries, exhibition spaces, Legacy Taipei (a music livehouse), arthouse cinema Spot, and various design and lifestyle shops. You get the idea. The bookstore is worth a visit if you are at HuaShan. It has an interesting selection of fiction and books on architecture, politics, Taiwan and just ideas. If you order a drink from the cafe, they don't seem to bother if you sit at a table for hours. 

Look out for this sign for Pon Ding!

朋丁(Pon Ding) - A book store with a small but good and current selection that includes zines, photography, design and art books. Level 2 is a gallery. They serve coffee on the ground floor, and the staff are friendly. It is appropriately located in the ZhongShan MRT area, which has all these trendy cafes.

下北沢世代 Shimokitazawa Books) - Another art and design book store, but with a bit more focus on independent magazine, illustration and art/literary publications from Taiwan. The bookstore is a tiny office unit on Level 2 of an old nondescript commercial building. It's quite a trek from the MRT station, with pet stores and old electrical stores lining the way. I think Shimokitzawa is one of the earliest independent art and design bookstores. I like how it's pared down, unfussy, lived-in and still managed by the owner. 

Entrance to Mr Zeng's kingdom

水準書局(Shui Jun Bookstore) is an institution, and its owner Mr Zeng is a legend. Located in the Shida university area, the bookstore is frequented by students and everyone who's been a student. It's a real book-lover and knowledge-seeker's bookstore. There's no hipsteresque furniture and knick knacks, only books. And the books are shelved from floor to ceiling. You can't see any bit of the wall surface, not even the counter.  If he could, Mr Zeng would have shelves on the ceiling. And the store stocks all the latest titles.

My Chinese isn't great, so I can't for the life of me figure out how the books are arranged. "Hmm. Most of the time, by publisher", J answered without blinking. "Which bookstore arranges books by publisher?! How do you find the books you want?!?" The wannabe librarian in me protested. J continued browsing a book he had picked out from a shelf which seemed to me to have mostly books by Japanese authors. "Why not? You see, more or less they are the same kind of books."

Mr Zeng gives our discounts as easily as does advice and conversation about life, world politics, philosophy. J and I witnessed the former in action. "This book is NTD420" he glanced at the price printed at the back cover, then adds, "let's go with NTD310." On the edge of a shelf, there are postcards from customers thanking him for being a part of their student lives. 

荒花 (Wildflower Bookstore) A really goodlooking store with an adventurous selection of art books and zines, It is not far from Pon Ding, so it's worth a visit if you are wandering around the ZhongShan area.

Whether Eslite, a university haunt or hip design stores, the book trade in Taipei began in 牯靈街 (Gu Ling Street). Gu Ling Street is always special in my mind because of Edward Yang's film! As in the film, Gu Ling Street was previously lined with bookstores, including rental bookstores. There are still a few of these left now, but they are curiosities. The old/second-hand books are magazines are bundled up, as if they are to be sold by weight. 

We spotted a tiny store on Gu Ling Street. It is no wider than a corridor and lined with shelves of old academic publications. I didn't dare pick any of them up because they look too fragile. Most of the spines are so faded you can no longer read their titles. But the owner has lovingly hand-written the title or topic. These treasures are named so that they are more than just a bunch of paper... more than a recording of knowledge, ideas, stories, love and time.



The 1st of a 7-panel long drawing I made almost 3 yeas ago after J and I started visiting MacRitchie regularly. 

On the last 1KM stretch of our usual route, though hidden from view, the cars on Lornie Road would break through the trees with the rumble of a waterfall. Today, this usual roar was accompanied by a rattle of metal. The vibrations were carried through the ground. 

"Did you feel that?" I asked J, wondering if the trees are ever stressed and imagining what having an MRT line run under the nature reserve would be like. 

It is frustrating that a reserve is not, as it is intended, "reserved" and protected. 

On that same stretch is a mature tree with massive buttress roots, a forest giant that demands you pause and raise your head. Its roots are covered in the most beautiful brilliant green I've seen. I don't think anything we build or make can mimic or come close to the beauty of this green.


ward 7D

In Ward 7D there were six broken male bodies. They were labeled by their fragility, inner rot and oral hygiene but not their names. Every few minutes or even seconds, they give up their breaths in moans and sighs. It is really depressing, this environment. The nurses work night and day looking after these men at their weakest and darkest. How much patience, goodness and strength the nurses must have to face and care for this messy mortality, every day. 


Up to the Seven Stars and Down to the South

Image by J. From a taxi on the streets of Tainan.

This is our seventh trip to Taiwan since 2005.  And so we went up to the Seven Stars and broke away from Taipei to spend a couple of hot hot hot days in Tainan. [If you are keen on other itineraries from our past jaunts, just read them on http://ampulets.blogspot.sg/search/label/taiwan]

Taking a walk up to the Seven Stars  

Photo taken by our Mountain Friend, Grandma Positivity, at the peak of Mt Qixing

Perhaps it was the El Nino effect, but early May in Taipei felt almost like the height of summer with unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms. This was our excuse for missing the Caoling Historical Trail a second time. To make up for it, we decided to take a walk up Mount Qixing (七星, literally Seven Stars), the highest point of the Yang Ming Shan Nature Park.

Getting there/ Starting the Trail
Take the MRT to JianTan station. From the station, take the red bus 15. It brings you all the way to the YangMingShan visitor centre. The trail up starts from MiaoPu and it is right next to the visitor centre. The entrance is well marked.

The bus also takes you to some of the key sights at YangMingShan, such as the sulphurous 小油坑 and 冷水坑. You can also start the trail from 小油坑 (XiaoYouKeng), which is a slightly shorter ascent though you may have to deal with the smell of sulphur at the start.

The advantage of starting at MiaoPu is that the staff at the Visitor Centre are super friendly and reassuring. As soon as I approached the counter, the middle-aged woman in the park ranger uniform smiled and when I said my destination, she led me to a wall of maps. She walked me through the different options of the trail, her white 1 metre-long pointer stick went tip-tap-tip-tap. Once schooled, off you go!

Tips on enjoying the trail
#1: I'll start with the warning that the ascent is at least a 2 hour hike up a trail that is mostly stone stairs. If you are not fit, like me, you'll be huffing and puffing your way up. But hell, it's worth it!

#2: Pack water, a light snack, and a windbreaker and cap in case it rains. The sun is scorching and the trail is mostly exposed. We saw aunties and uncles in all manner of attire. They more than survived.

#3: However tired you are, don't forget to stop, turn around, and take a look at the scenery behind you. Sweet J often reminded me this.

#4: And don't forget to look at the lovely wild flowers all around. They grow by the sides of the trail and through the cracks and crevices of the path - which are mostly laid with large rocks from the area. J also saw several skinks along the way (I was too tired to notice), and there is a sign at the start of the trail that warned of the Asian cobra and hornets.

#5: Smile, be friendly and considerate. Most of your fellow hikers will be. Expect to receive at least a 你好 greeting! And don't be afraid to ask for directions or if you feel like chatting, most are willing to strike up a conversation.  In fact, this has been our most rewarding aspect of the hike - the 山友 (aka mountain friends) we made! [>> Read about our "Mountain Friends" in this post]

Getting down and back to the City
Once at the summit (at 1120m) you can opt to descend to 小油坑 (XiaoYouKeng), which should take approximately an hour or so. Alternatively, you can take the route we did, which is probably an hour and a half to the next peak (東峰 East Peak) and down to the 冷水坑 (LengShuiKeng).

Once down, you can explore the 冷水坑 (LengShuiKeng) or take a short walk to the 擎天崗(QingTianTang), a 45min loop around an expanse of volcanic grassland.

If not, Bus 15 leaves from the 冷水坑 (LengShuiKeng) bus stop, twice every hour. It brings you back to the Shilin and JianTan MRT stops.

Down south and to a different Taiwan
View from the train to Tainan

Tainan is only some 1hr45min by high speed rail from Taipei. The ticket is pretty costly at about 2300NTD. You can buy it from the station or from the ibon machines at the 7-11 stores.

We decided to go Tainan this trip because BB, a friend who makes frequent trips to Taiwan, recommended it. On various guides we've read, the analogy has been drawn to Taipei being like Tokyo and Tainan Kyoto, leaving KaoShiung to be Osaka. Well, you got to dial down Kyoto by many many notches...the same way Taipei is no where near Tokyo in sophistication, so it is that the comparison to Kyoto for Tainan is only to say that it is the historic capital of Taiwan. And there is still a more languid, kampong air to Tainan.

What does a typical 2 day itinerary to Tainan look like. Amps recommend not killing yourselves to cover too much, just these couple of spots for a start:

Day 1
Assuming you arrive in Tainan by 1pm or so:
- Explore the Central West/West district where there're streets of food. The old Western Market 西市場and the streets around it are nicely conserved, including some gentrification with cafes and young entrepreneurs setting up shop.
- Walk all the way to the 林百貨, supposedly the first department store in Taiwan. Set up by the Japanese, it's a beautifully conserved building.
- Have dinner at the street stalls of 寶安街 (fried prawn rice is crazy! ) The girl at our inn made this recommendation: any store with the name beginning with 阿(ah) is pretty good.
- Enjoy post dinner drinks at 海岸街

Image taken with the auto-timer at the old house inn we stayed in.

Day 2
- Start the day at about 10.30am at the old Anping Area. The old fort, Tree House and various sights should take about an hour and a half. The Tree House is very picturesque, but as historic sights go, these aren't much to shout about. Still, the history of the Fort and the ol'skool exhibits there do give you an quick overview of Taiwan's early colonial history.
- At Anping, find a decent place where you can try their prawn rolls and oyster/clam omelettes. That's lunch for sure. And fried rice. Tainan does a mean fried rice!
- If you are hot and sweaty by now (cos Tainan is as humid as Singapore), freshen up in the hotel.
- The 321 Art Settlement area is worth a wander. Not all the old army houses/factories (now turned into artist studios) are always open but it's quiet and there is a sense that you've stumbling through a time machine.

Image by J of a residential street in Tainan. Ladies playing an afternoon game of ChapJiKee.

What to look out for in Tainan besides food? Us amps recommend:
- Canvas bags (it's the hometown of 帆布/sail canvas).
- Banyan/Fig trees - beautiful majestic ones.
- Mosquitoes. As in "Look Out!" Tainan had a bout of dengue in Autumn'15 and I counted 15 bites on my legs in 2 days. Bring insect repellent.

We're not that sure if we'll be back in Tainan anytime soon. But it's still worth a visit if you haven't been. If you have more time, there's a salt processing factory/museum that seems quite fun. And a boat ride down around their river delta/swampland that promises bird sightings.

Mountain Friends

Image by J, of me walking up Mount Seven Stars.

In the sweltering May, we escaped into the YangMingShan National Park to climb the part's highest peak, Mount QiXing ("Seven Stars") at 1120m. The climb affirmed two aspects of Taiwan that make this  place our favourite holiday spot: its nature and it's super friendly people.

This is a post about some of the folks - aunties and uncles - we met on our way up, our 山友aka mountain friends! They chatted, cheered and lifted our spirits as J and I (me in particular) huffed and puffed our way up and down the trail.


Cave of forgotten dreams

Image by J, taken near Henderson waves

The filmmaker Werner Herzog describes the 1994 discovery of the 32,000 year old cave drawings in the Chauvet cave in France as one of the most important cultural discoveries in human history. Indeed, the care of the caves come under the  French ministry of culture. 

Over the weekend, J and I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog's 2010 award winning documentary (available on iTunes). The film haunted our weekend and sent us back to the Macritchie nature reserve on an incredibly hot and sticky afternoon.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" official trailer on Youtube

The drawings of mammoths, rhinoceros, lions, cave bears, bisons, antelope and horses in herds, singly or locked in battle are large, some 6 feet long. The bodies of animals are often drawn in one elegant, sinuous line. Their faces, however, are shaded in - and display surprising detail and animation. There is only one drawing of a human figure, of what looks like the lower half of a female body, juxtaposed against a bison's head. From this comes the film's title. Herzog explains - in Picasso's series of drawings of minotaurs one sees this prehistoric drawing, as if man's eternal visions had visited Picasso; from one artist to another, a ghost of a dream.

The cave is closed to visitors. So we know we are getting through Herzog's documentary a rare and precious 2 hour glimpse back into 30,000 years. The camera moves your gaze across these drawings countless times. Once with a palaeontologist's voiceover. Once with the cave's "curator" giving her personal tour. Another time with Herzog's crew. You see these drawings as if they were recurring visions.

The landscape that surrounds this hidden cave (hidden because a massive rock wall had collapsed and covered its entrance for thousands of years) is itself hauntingly beautiful. A massive arch, carved by nature, frames an emerald water body. On either sides the limestone (?) walls are ragged and pale, harsh and soft at the same time.

Image by J, taken at MacRitchie

You are drawn into this timeless landscape of nature and art. Your mind wanders and sees mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, lions and bisons roaming the high plains, the limestone turned into ice.  And in that landscape there are these human figures.

In the documentary, Herzog finds and interviews one of the archaeologists. Herzog has a knack for finding the odd ones (and it is lovely to find so many dedicated professionals in the film!). The young archaeologist was previously a circus performer who shared that after a week in the caves he had to take a break because he is haunted by dreams of lions. Then there is a master perfumer (President of the French association of perfumers, no less!) who has retired and so walks and sniffs the earth, and he is invited to sniff the cave for the traces of bear and to record the scents of time. Another interviewee talks of culture.

And so culture. We are taught to think of archaeology and all the technology that allows lasers to map the inside of the cave as science. And hence, not of the arts. But culture is broader. It is the sum of what makes us human. Our choices. Our creations. Our relations. Our expressions and projections of who we are.

Image by J, taken at MacRitchie

In the cave there are also prints made from a a red pigment thrown on the stone walls against a hand. There are multiple handprints of someone with a crooked last finger.

Who is man? A print. Hands that make. The bottom half of a woman's body - from where we are born. Knower of animals. Hunter of animals.

That weekend I read also magazine articles of forgotten genocides, 100 years old; and today's wars, with already forgotten deaths. What defines human culture in time, as much as the works of art we create and leave behind, are our acts violence against one another, our violence against the animals we are given to live alongside and our violence against the environment we live in.

We don't always have to make and invent - the fecundity of our imagination, laboratories and factories, oh enough already - we sometimes just need to cherish and protect, and not destroy.

So friends, if you have not taken a quiet ramble across our lovely MacRitchie nature reserve, do so. And you will know why it must be cherished and protected.


Not for a memory

Never have I seen so many different butterflies in a day.

It's been months since we last ran or took a walk in the MacRitchie Nature Reserve. Today, butterflies accompanied us all along our midday trail from MacRitchie to Bukit Timah. They swooped, fluttered, flitted, floated, danced and circled the dirt and gravel - into the undergrowth - rested to draw on the salty earth and to feast the decay - teasing our watchful chase. Something is always dying and being made anew in the forest.

When I got home I was eager to record their colours and patterns before the memory faded. But J decided that the forest looked best instead in black and white today. This picture was a kind of  compromise. J vetoed two dainty yellows.

There should be no compromise, however, for protecting and preserving as much as possible of this nature on our tropical island. Certainly not for the subway, highway, or even flats for newly wedded lovers.
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