Posts by don wong:

Our present day image of Russia is largely colored by its Soviet history: from Cold War nuclear arms race to Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika; the fall of the communist union in 1991 and Vladimir Putin’s KGB past. However Russia had a long and rich existence before Lenin’s 1917 October Revolution founded the Marxist state. To get a glimpse of   this Russia, it is worthwhile to make a detour to the rolling countryside between Moscow and St Petersburg, where the city of Veliky Novgorod lies in slumber like a forgotten Byzantine jewel.

Novgorod refers to “New City” , though the 9th century UNESCO world-heritage site is one of the oldest cities in Russia. Textbook Russian history relates the story of how Novgorod was essentially where ‘Russia’ began: as the first capital of Kievan Rus, a medieval polity ruled by the Varangian Norsemen from the 9th to 13th century who later moved the capital to Kiev, in present day Ukraine. After the fall of Kievan Rus to the Mongol Tartars in ~1240, Novgorod became the center of the Novgorod Republic, a medieval state that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Ural Mountains. For 600 years between its founding in 862 and the fall of the Novgorod Republic in 1478, this city state along the mighty Volkhov River was Russia’s most advanced artistic and political center.

Volkhov River RussiaVolkhov River, Krelim & St Sophia in Veliky Novgorod

Novgorod is easily accessible by train or car along the major Moscow- St Petersburg axis. Perhaps harkening to its previous status as a trading hub, the people of the town (about 200,000 inhabitants) are friendly and warm.

Like most ancient cities, Novgorod grew on the back of trade, specifically between Scandinavia and Central Asia. This trade route leveraged the unique northward flow of the Volkhov River towards Europe’s largest freshwater mass, Lake Ladoga and Finland, as opposed to the other channels flowing south towards the Black and Caspian seas.   Approaching Novgorod by river, the 9th century Kremlin (fort) comes to view, with the five domed silhouette of Cathedral of St. Sophia as its centerpiece. Built in 1052, St. Sophia has a fortress-like exterior, its onion-domes supposedly added in the 14th century.

Kremlin RussiaKremlin Wall and Moat – Veliky Novgorod

Walking within the Kremlin, one steps back in time. Present day Novgorod is green, pretty and tranquil. A millennia ago, the fortress would have been the bustling center of worship, trade and warfare. Now it is an oasis of calm, the silence occasionally broken by the laughter of school children on a history excursion.

St Sophia novgorodCathedral of St Sophia – Veliky Novgorod

Perhaps the clearest reminder of the city’s illustrious past is the massive, 300-tonne Millennium of Russia sculpture that was unveiled in 1862 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Russia by the Varangian Prince Rurik’s arrival at Novgorod. Mother Russia crowns the top, with the who’s who of Russian history (from Peter the Great to Ivan the Terrible) circling the rungs.

Millennium of Russia – Veliky Novgorod

While the Kremlin is the historical heart of the town, we feel that the true beauty of Novgorod lies across the banks of the Volkhov river at what is known as Yaroslav’s Court. The site is named after Yaroslav the Wise who was Prince of Novgorod from 1010-1019. Yaroslav established the first code of laws, Russia’s version of the Magna Carta.

Yaroslav’s Court – Veliky Novgorod

Distinguished by the remnants of a 17th arcade facing the river, Yaroslav’s Court is now a vast green garden dotted by an array of domed churches built by 13th-16th century merchant guilds, mostly in various stages of disrepair.

Church of St Paraskeva Piatnitsa – Veliky Novgorod

Church of Our Lady of the Sign – Veliky Novgorod

Court Cathedral of St Nicholas – Veliky Novgorod

Church of Transfiguration – Veliky Novgorod

The gardens of Yaroslav’s Court pan out to a peaceful residential neighborhood, housing a series of small retail shops. Interspersed in this estate are more merchant guild churches, some in open greens, like the Church of Transfiguration; others in semi-hidden courtyards, such as the grand but derelict Church of Our Lady of the Sign.

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It is extraordinary how a capital city characterized by the most horrific of traffic jams is also populated by the some of the world’s most charmingly warm and patient people. To see Bangkok beyond its urban walls, consider signing up for a Thai culinary class, quickly catching on as an institution of discovery for visitors. This time, we chose Baipai Culinary School’s half-day course held in the Lat Yao district, located minutes from the city’s famous Chatuchak market.

These classes typically begin with a visit to the local market- an experience in itself. After a 90 minute van ride from downtown Sathorn to Chatuchak, we were greeted at the bustling market by our morning guide. Energetic and animated, she guided the class through the maze of small local stalls to seek out the vegetables and ingredients for the course. We found ourselves picking up a selection of lemongrass and bell peppers, fresh coconut milk and a medley of local curry spices. Typical of impeccable Thai service, we were well taken care of, with ice water bottles being handed out swiftly through the walk to make sure we were always well hydrated!

We then arrived at the school- a quiet, modern suburban bungalow set amongst a luscious garden. At Baipai, like in most well-run Thai cooking classes, the participants get to prepare the ingredients- typically with some magic aid. What this means is that there is staff on hand to handle the difficult cuts and to help the squeamish- no fear if you have never de-veined a shrimp! Only the fun cutting and pounding of spices with pestle are left for the participants!

Perhaps the best part of such classes is that, generally, one is set up to succeed, regardless of cooking experience or flair. With observant chef-assistants on hand throughout the class, following the chef’s instructions is a breeze. Thai style cooking involves the Asian Wok and pots for curries. Controlling the flame and heat is probably the trickiest bit, but the chef assistants come in at the right moment to prevent any charred noodles or rice. In Baipai’s case, the assistants work so unobtrusively that one can experiment with the cooking, yet take comfort that main course for lunch is always under those caring, watchful eyes.

We conjured up a mouth-watering course of Phad Thai (traditional moist rice noodles with shrimp in a sweet-savory blend), Satay Chicken ( Skewered BBQ chicken with Thai marination) and Spicy Grilled Beef Salad. Not bad for first timers to Thai cuisine! Through the chef’s animated commentaries, it became a fascinating journey into Thai culture, customs, history and people- all while picking, shopping, chopping, barbecuing, stir-frying and enjoying the creation of a fulfilling meal.

For more information on Baipai Cooking school and class schedules, please see

Baipai Cooking School

8/91 Ngam Wongwan Road, Soi 54

Ladyao, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900

Tel: 662 561 1404

Email: info@baipai.com


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Established as one of the highest accolades for contemporary visual art in Asia Pacific, the 2nd  Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation’s Signature Art competition was held in 2011 and works of the top 15 finalists are on display at the Singapore Art Museum until March 4th, 2012.  The triennial prize was established in 2008 to recognize groundbreaking contemporary art. The 2011 competition involved 130 works from 24 countries in the region, and notably included a mix of upstarts and established artists. The finalists’ exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum captivates by its diversity, and the boldness and wit of the represented works.

In perhaps archetypical Japanese restraint, Aida Makoto constructs a scathing observation of Japanese corporate life within the framework of an otherwise pleasing, flowing landscape. His huge 3m x 7m ‘Ash Mountains’ toys with traditional oriental landscape painting to express the poignancy of urban corporate life in Japan.   From afar, the mountains appear just as misty waves. On close-up, the details reveal the heaps of white collar salarymen in business suits entangled with the mundane anchors of daily office life- wires, desktops, computer units.

Vandy Rattana’s ‘Bomb Ponds’ revisits Cambodia’s plight during the Vietnam War through a unique geographical angle.   In the carpet-bombing against Communist sympathizers in the countryside, American warplanes left their mark in the form of countless craters in the fields. Over the years, many of these craters gradually became ponds- now lush, thriving with life, even beautiful. For the casual visitor, the ponds appear almost natural. His video commentary documents the enduring psychological scars of individuals affected by the war, juxtaposed against the natural landscape that has outwardly healed over time, with bomb craters now merely tranquil ponds.

Michael Lee’s ‘Second hand City’ boldly envisions future scenarios, technologies and possibilities in urban conservation and transformation. If we were freed from the limitations of present day civil engineering, if physical properties of concrete were radically different, what would be possible? The imaginative series pushes the boundaries of ‘what might be’ in constantly changing Singapore.

Bui Cong Khanh’s interactive piece, ‘The Past Moved’ recreates an old Vietnamese street corner and invites the viewer to enter the scene. The resulting portraits form a study in contrasts and the passage of time- we of ‘today’s world’ against a backdrop that is both familiar yet distant.

For more on the Singapore Art Museum and its many exhibitions, including this one, check out the museum’s events page.

Singapore Art Museum [Map]
71 Bras Basah Road    Singapore Art Museum, Singapore 189555
6332 3222

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We returned to Singapore from Moscow inspired by the architecture of the latter’s metro network, the renowned ‘underground palaces’ initiated during Stalin’s regime in the 1930s. The stations’ eclectic blend of Classical, Baroque and communist quasi-religious iconography captured a major phase of Russian history that arguably continues to define its national psyche till today. What of Singapore? A metro system designed by an arguably equally strong-willed government, started in the 1980s as a core infrastructure for a young nation just two decades after independence, seeking to define itself on the global arena. What does Singapore’s metro, its Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) reveal of itself?

Moscow Metro Interior:

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Singapore’s history can be read through it metro network. The oldest segment of the network is the North-South/East West conduit, shaped like an inverted “T” . These were the 1980s pioneers, built upon principles of pragmatism and functionalism. The stations are generally indistinguishable from each other except for color: Green for Buena Vista, Red for Red Hill etc., and renovations have retained the emphasis on color and simple geometric adornments.

Dhoby Ghaut Orange Emphasis:

Dhoby Ghaut is etymologically probably one of the most interesting stations in Singapore, derived from the Hindi word ‘Dhobi Ghat’ which refers to a public washing place, usually a river-bank, where Dhobis (washer-women) do their laundry. We recall more than once being asked by Indian visitors why Singapore as a modern city still had a national ‘Dhobi Ghat’! The station is best known for its signature mosaic mural, designed by Romanian-Yugoslavic pair Prvacki and Milenko in 2001 as a tapestry of Singapore’s multicultural history.

The newer North-East line that runs from Punggol to Harbourfront reflects the growing predominance of steel in construction since the late 1990s, with attempts to infuse elements of art within the stations, such as the Chinese calligraphic characters in granite at the Chinatown station. However, it is in the third and newest segment of the metro network, the Circle Line, that we see a true ‘coming of age’ of Singapore’s metro architecture.

The transparent roof of the Bras Basah station houses a reflecting pool (its water-centric design being an apt historical reference to ‘Bras Basah’, Singapore’s main drying site for wet rice in the 1800s, ‘beras basah’ in Malay). The water-filled skylight allows natural light into the station that links the metro network with the Singapore Art Museum and Singapore Management University.

At 35m, it is the deepest station in the network, and the design by architectural firm WOHA emphasizes its cavernous nature by interplaying dark granite against white sunlight. A passenger literally experiences the passage from ‘dark’ to ‘light’ through a series of dramatic escalators, also the longest in the metro network.

Bras Basah gets top marks for its sensibilities to the historical setting of the station, but we believe that Singapore metro’s Pià­ ¨ce de résistance is a station that is yet to be officially unveiled. Stadium Station, also designed by WOHA and winner of the President’s Design Award 2010, is less illustrious than Sir Norman Foster’s ‘flying saucer’ concept for the Expo Station. Foster’s is visually captivating, designed to trumpet Expo Station as the site of major public exhibition and commercial fairs. However it has to be appreciated exteriorly, its ‘meaning’ transparent to most passengers.

Norman Foster’s “Flying Saucer” at Expo Station:

Stadium Station however, sets the tone immediately upon arrival: you know you have come to a ‘destination station’. Unlike all other stations with plain granite or white flooring, Stadium boasts an array of dazzling blue-green tiles. One exits the train to arrive at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, looking up through canyon-like cliffs towards suspended images of soccer players defying gravity.

The bold, curvaceous, folding walls seem to follow an organic rift in the earth, and passengers are served the treat of emerging from a channel of commute to a hallowed ground of sports.

Designed as the gateway to the Singapore Sports Hub, a 35-ha, billion-dollar future-state integrated sports center with a view of the city center, Stadium Station is quietly biding its time for its day in the sun.

A number of exciting undercurrents are taking place along otherwise sleepy Bencoolen Street. Known more for its third rate hotels than architecture, the first seed of a potentially radical transformation may have been planted by WOHA’s reconceptualization of the intersection point of Prinsep and Bencoolen Street to house Space Furniture’s new Asia flagship store.

The new multiplex revolves around the restored colonial era 2-storey bungalow which is enveloped on 2 sides by a modern steel-and-glass structure that houses most of the 43,000-sq ft retail showcase of leading designer works.

Space Furniture’s presence complements the development of the area as a site of artistic expression and art development. Bencoolen Street is encircled by SOTA (School of the Arts), Lasalle College of the Arts, and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

The multiplex designed by WOHA has created a green pedestrian oasis in an area that used to be a pass-through avenue without noteworthy sights. The flat reflective glass facade presents a gleaming contrast of light and sheens against the white detailing of the old bungalow, with intermediate spaces filled with inviting pockets of furniture.

Inside, Space has assembled Singapore’s largest collection of designer furniture brands, from Carl Hansen, Flexform, Fritz Hansen, to Kartell, Poliform, Moooi and Vitra. The setting incorporates elements of the conservation shophouses that have lent their interiors towards the amalgamated showroom, with mezzanine levels, green walls and sloped roofings contributing to a fascinating layout that breaks from the usual mould of furniture retailing.

The interior structure invites exploration, and creates multiple focal points of interest in an otherwise overwhelming sea of products.

The juxtaposition of Singapore’s colonial past against modernity is a thrust that has caught on in the public’s imagination in recent developments. One early prominent project was Tan Chin Tuan Mansion at Cairnhill by Architects 61, now complete. Recent condominiums like Draycott 8 and Buckley Classique have also retained rather than demolished old bungalows on their premises, turning them typically into club-houses. However all are in private enclosures. Space’s Bencoolen creation, while exclusive, remains public.

Tan Chin Tuan Mansion at Cairnhill by Architects 61

Bencoolen Street is named in remembrance of Stamford Raffles’ position as lieutenant-governor of Bencoolen (Bengkulu) in Sumatra before it was ceded to the Netherlands as part of the British-Dutch Treaty of 1824. The street was an area of congregation for the Bencoolen Muslims and known for its landmark, Masjid Benggali (Bencoolen Mosque) though only a shadow of its former character is found in the present mosque tucked quietly alongside Ascott’s serviced residences. With the construction of the new Bencoolen MRT and Space Furniture’s new flagship building, Bencoolen is poised to enter a new phase in Singapore’s urban landscape.