Playing Mahjong


One of my favourite activities when I am in Singapore is to play mahjong… with relatives and friends there who know how to play and enjoy it too 🙂

Careful though, I am not referring to the Mahjong game you can play on your computers where the aim is to match pairs… I am talking about the 4-player game which you have probably less heard of.

Mahjong is a chinese game where you use tiles to build combinations (three of a kind or sequencing numbers), gain more points thanks to the “winds” and “dragons” tiles… and overall win (or loose) money. (as you may know, Chinese people love to gamble, and I must admit it is more fun when there is something at stake!) It is a little like rummy, if you’ve played this game before.

One of my best hands so far !! 2 flowers and all of a same kind

It is originally a game from continental China, called Ma Jiang (麻将)but it was later exported to other countries when the Chinese community moved to other countries. “Mahjong” is the name for the Hong-Kongese version, which is the most played in Singapore. So there are no longer “fixed” rules of mahjong, since every region or community has its specific rules and way of counting points. Also, different versions of mahjong exist in other Asian countries, like Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The funny thing about mahjong is that sometimes Asian people you meet do not know how to play (especially in the younger generation), whereas tourists or foreigners (like me 🙂 ) sometimes know the rules! I wonder if that’s because it’s an easy item to bring back to your home country and share with your foreign friends…

However if you have the chance to visit elderly people in Singapore, you will probably see them play mahjong. It is said to be a great game to keep your mind alert… and boy! Are they fast when they play!! I wish someday I’ll be able to compete with them!!

Another of my winning hands… with jokers!

Overall, mahjong is really fun and a great way to get closer to the Chinese culture if you are not very knowledgeable about it and wish to learn more. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know how to speak Chinese, just read a few characters which you can find on the internet.

Also, there is a growing trend of mahjong competitions in foreign countries, so why not join a club and start practicing?

I even thought about starting a Mahjong club in my school a few years back… it’s a pity I didn’t have enough time to carry this project out, I’m sure it would have been a great hit! Especially since more and more Chinese students are studying in foreign countries like France, it would have been quite easy to find knowledgeable players 🙂

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Make a joke with Bakkwa


Have you ever heard the term “Bakkwa” (or bagua) ? It’s a very local term in SouthEast Asia, and in particular in Singapore…

Bakkwa is a Hokkien term for barbecued meat. It is usually pork meat, but has been declined into beef, mutton and chicken versions too. It’s basically sliced barbecued meat, which looks a little like beef jerky. Mmmmmmm yummy !!

In Singapore, people snack on it during the day, and even queue up for it during Chinese New Year. You can find some either in established shops (one of the most famous shops is Bee Cheng Hiang) or sometimes in hawker centers.

The last time I went to Singapore I saw Bakkwa on sale at People’s Park Complex hawker center in Chinatown, on the ground floor. If I remember correctly it was labeled Kim Hua Guan, which is another reliable brand for Bakkwa (but there are many other brands too!). It’s actually nicer to buy some in a hawker center because you can watch the cook barbecue the meat for you. Plus, you can be sure it’s super fresh 🙂

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Personnally, I simply love Bakkwa. But what I love most is making jokes with it to my non-Singaporean friends !! Try this one out for fun:

Step 1: Buy packs of Bakkwa from Singapore, pack them individually and fit them in your suitcase. Make sure there is no ingredients description on the package.

Step 2: Give them out between your friends when you come back from Singapore and say it’s a Singaporean delicacy. Serve some on a plate for them to try. Cut it into pieces so that the meat is not recognisable.

Step 3: Tell them it’s DOG MEAT … and watch their reactions !! I can guarantee you, you are in for a good laugh !! 😀 See how many of your friends agree to actually taste it and bring back some home.

Do let me know if you try it out 🙂

CNY 2012 in Singapore


Chinese New Year (CNY) is coming up! Although it is officially on Monday 23rd Jan this year, celebrations in Singapore begin before hand. So why not take advantage of this week-end to see as much as you can?

CNY 2012 in Singapore will include :
– streets light up in Chinatown
– lanterns and light shows along Marina Bay Reservoir
– the Sentosa flower event to celebrate the upcoming Spring
– the Chingay Parade on Feb 3rd where there will be dragon shows
– music, theatre and play performances all around time
– and of course many shopping bargains and commercial events…

You can start planning your outings here.

But for those of us who are not familiar with CNY, what is this celebration really about? Chinese New Year – also called the Spring Festival (春节— pronounced chun jie) – celebrates the end of one year (ie the Rabbit year) and the beginning of a new year (ie the Dragon year).

It is a tradition for Chinese people to gather with their families at this time of the year, enjoy good food and spend time together. In mainland China, people are usually allowed a full week of holiday, which is enough time for them to travel back home.

Homes are decorated with red paper cuttings, families thoroughly clean their houses to get rid of bad spirits and welcome good ones for the new year… and also, the elderly usually give out a little money in red envelopes to the younger members of the family. We call them 红包 (pronounced hong bao).

As this is a time of the year for peace, sharing love and gathering with your loved ones, I would like to sincerely wish you a very happy Chinese new year !!

恭喜发财
Gong Xi Fa Cai
Prosperous new year (literally : Wishing you a lot of money) 

新年快乐
Xin Nian Kuai Le
Happy New year !!

If you want to make a joke to your friends, you can tell them : 恭喜发财,红包拿来 !(pronounced : gong xi fa cai – hong bao na lai), which means “Happy New Year! Give me the red envelope!”.

English Translation:

In every avenue and street
From the mouth of everyone
The first sentence when we meet
is congratulations
Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations to you
Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations to you

The winter has come to an end
That’s really good news
The warm breeze of the spring
will wake up the earth
Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations to you
Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations to you

The heavy snow has melted
The plums are about to blossom
The endless dark night is over
We hear the crowing of a rooster
Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations to you
Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations to you

After so much difficulty
with so much discipline
So many hearts are looking forward
To the news of spring
Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations to you
Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations to you

Shopping: is Singapore expensive?


Let’s say you are in Singapore and feel like going on a shopping spree. But you were told that Singapore was expensive. Well here is news for you! Singapore might not be as expensive as you think, it simply boils down to knowing the right places…

1. Garments and accessories

Of course the first place which comes to your mind is Orchard Road, the perfect place for luxury and branded items (if you haven’t been there yet, check out ION, Tangs, Ngee Ann City or the recently opened Abercrombie and Fitch store).

However, you can also find less expensive clothes in globalised brands outlets, like Uniqlo or Zara for instance. Most of these brands are in shopping malls like 313@Somerset or Vivo City near Harbour Front. If on the contrary you are willing to try unique garments, you should go for designer clothes and jewelry from Haji Lane!

Finally, if you would rather not spend too much, check out Charles and Keith outlets for shoes : they are usually comfortable, trendy and cheap. Another option for tighter budgets could be Far East Plaza’s basement, Bugis Street, Chinatown or Little India where garments and accessories are usually coming from China. Do not expect excellent quality though…

2. IT products

Singapore might not be as cheap as other Southeast Asian countries when it comes to IT, but there are still many places where you can make a bargain.

You could start with Orchard Road, the most obvious place to go first. However if prices seem to high or if you find the selection too restricted, go to Funan Shopping Mall or Sim Lim Square. Both malls are famous in Singapore for the choice they provide regarding IT products (I bought a 500GB hard drive a year ago in Sim Lim Square and it really does the job!). Also, Holland Village is a safe bet for cheap and reliable devices (try Parisilk for example).

3. Fine art and decorative objects

If you are looking for fine art or decorative objects to bring back to your home country, you can try Chinatown, Kampong Glam or Little India. They are safe bets and not too expensive compared to what you could find on Orchard Road. You might also find fine art items from Cambodia in the Holland Village Shopping Mall, and typically Peranakan objects in shophouses along East Coast Road.

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For other types of items, here is what I would recommend:
– Books : Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City for their large choice of literature,
– Fun accessories : Bugis Street for cheap and shiny party add-ons,
– CDs and DVDs : HMV, or Mustafa Center in Little India,
– Fine jewelry : Chinatown, definitely.
– Sports equipment : Queensway Shopping Center of course!

Also, do not forget that the best way to make a bargain while shopping in Singapore is to wait for the GREAT SINGAPORE SALE, which takes place every year in June and July. Discounts are really worth it !!

Chinatown


How can you go to Singapore and not go to Chinatown?

When Sir Raffles organised the city of Singapore, he determined zones for each ethnic minority. The Indians have what is today Little India, the Malays have the Kampong Glam area with Arab Street… and the Chinese have Chinatown.

Today, Chinatown is still mostly populated by Chinese people. You can go there very easily by MRT and experience a China-like atmosphere. If you really want to see the way some locals live, have a stroll around People’s Park Complex. It is a huge shopping complex – not very beautiful, but at least it will give you a taste of locals’ daily lives.

What is there to do in Chinatown?

Visit the area to begin with. When you step out of the MRT, simply walk around. Do not stay only on Pagoda Street (which is the most “touristy” street), but instead do feel free to take a turn and go into Mosque street, Temple street… Among Chinatown’s must-do, do not miss out on the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, the Sri Mariamman Temple (an Indian temple in Chinatown! That’s Singapore’s melting pot!), and of course the Chinatown Heritage Center – a wonderful Museum that will tell you everything about how Chinese migrants settled in Singapore. Also don’t forget to look up once in a while to admire ancient shophouses and Chinese lanterns!

Eat of course!! Hawker food in chinatown is not bad, I particularly enjoy their noodles. Try “food street” (which is actually Smith street) at night, or you can also go further to Maxwell Center too, where they serve excellent Chicken Rice !! However if you prefer to sit in a restaurant and enjoy the aircon, there are many restaurants in the area that you can choose from. A personal favourite would be Kok Sen Coffee Shop, on Keong Saik Road – their Chicken Claypot is simply to die for !!

Food street at night

And shop!! In Chinatown you will find lots of decorative objects and fun things for tourists to bring back to their home country… chopsticks, key chains, small buddha statues, scarves and so on. But you can also find Chinese medicine and herbs (check out Eu Yan Sang for instance), or refined jewellery and antiques on South Bridge Road. Other shopping options include chinese dresses (“cheong sams”) or tea. There are also a few designer boutiques if you go further to Ann Siang Road and Club Street, not too far away.

So don’t just walk through Pagoda Street and say there is nothing to see in Chinatown… you will soon find out this area is more interesting than you thought!

An Asian melting pot?


I have often been asked whether Singapore is only inhabited by Chinese people… which shows how unfortunately little is known about the origins of Singaporeans.

There are three major communities living together on the island : Chinese (approximately 75%), Malays (14%) and Indians (9%). As you know, each community more or less has its own district, as a legacy from the British colonial governement in the 1820s – Chinatown, Arab Street and Little India. And added to these 3 major races, Singapore is also home to Eurasians (people of both European and Asian descent), as well as other mixed-cultured individuals (like Peranakans for instance, descendants of both Chinese and Malay cultures).

Peranakan Kebayas. They best represent the blending of Chinese and Malay cultures

To me, the cohabitation of different races is one of the key assets that Singapore has, both politically and culturally speaking. As you might have seen, it is a key theme adressed in political messages from the government (to strengthen the feeling of unity in one nation) and which allows Singapore to stand strongly as one. As for culture, what better proof of a sucessful melting pot than Singapore’s culinary delicacies ?

If you are interested in this subject, I would recommend to visit the Peranakan Museum as well as the National Museum of Singapore to get a better insight in Singapore’s multiculturalism.