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Posts Tagged ‘Singapore’

Numerous primitive and tribal cultures believe a person’s soul is stolen when they’re photographed. I wonder if a photograph shows a soul being drained.

I’m delving into mental and photographic snapshots of my 12 year expat experience for a colleague’s blog: one highlight, one lowlight. The lowlight will be hard to choose.

My five years in Asia in the ’90s would amount to great adventure for most people, yet the evidence clumps together in my least favorite albums.

Off-camera life losses — separation from family, friends, language, community, the death of my best friend, the theft of my puppy, you name I lost it during my first longterm stint abroad — are reflected on-camera. Stripped of my cosmopolitan composure. Confident clothing. Gleaming skin. Chocolate curls. Toothy smile. Layer by layer, country by country, year by year I deplete and erode.

There are some monstrous stunners here.

Sweaty and sun-damaged with unschooled fluffball haircut, captured in the gracious gardens of Raffles Hotel. I’d given up sunscreen, as well as hair products and all hope of finding a stylist who understood fine and curly.

On the Great Wall of China, scowling Westerner in unladylike Doc Martens and baggy seersucker shorts (the only ones in the shops, I swear!), surrounded by svelte Chinese girls in platform shoes cheerfully waving tour company flags.

Thankfully these days the likelihood of snapping a picturesque portrait has gone way up even if my background doesn’t always match me.

What do your bluest images depict and how do they reveal the soul’s resiliency?

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This week at a global nomad dinner party — guest list drawn up virtually by a mutual friend who met the diners all over the world — I had the pleasure of chatting with an artist and his architect wife. Seattle-area residents, they spend a third of their time abroad in places like Kerala, India and the Neapolitan island of Procida, creating public art and advising governments on historic preservation and ways to make it a sustainable choice.

Penang shophouse

Penang shophouse

A year before I moved to Penang, the couple was based in that Malaysian state. Patricia worked with local officials on a conservation plan for the Georgetown city center, a collection of vernacular architecture unmatched by other Southeast Asian nations making it a candidate for UNESCO’s World Heritage status. In modernizing, hot-to-trot Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore leveled most of their shophouses. (The New York Times highlights one Singapore restoration this week.) She inventoried a thousand shophouses. These two- or three-story rowhouses mostly built between the 1890s-1930s with a shared five foot-wide covered arcade were both places of work and home, ensuring 24/7 vibrancy in the tropical port city.

To me, shophouses embodied the equatorial island’s melange of cultures and its exotic mercantile history.

I marveled at the crumbling lime facades and the multilingual signs that reflected the city’s waves of traders, immigrants and British administration. A native majority saw $$ in tearing them down, so openly loving these decrepit structures under threat was my foreigner quirk.

Here’s Patricia on the merging of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European styles in Penang’s shophouses:

From the Chinese came the courtyard plan, the rounded gable ends and the fan-shaped air vents; from the Malay came the carved timber panels and the timber fretwork; from the Indians, urban construction techniques, including a hard-wearing plaster; from the Europeans, French windows and decorative plasterwork.

How does architecture influence your understanding of a place, its people and history?

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