Tales of Asia V – Rangoon, Penang & Singapore, 14 Nov, Sat, 2 – 3 p.m., Library@Orchard, 313 Orchard Road

Supreme Court and Municipal Offices, Singapore.

Supreme Court and Municipal Offices, Singapore.

Part V of Tales of Asia – the final episode – features the British Empire in the Far East, and the cities of Rangoon (today’s Yangon), Penang and Singapore.

Join me as we travel back in time to:

  • Stroll through Old Town Rangoon, exploring the European Town with its monumental architecture reflecting the puissance of the British Raj, and the multi-cultural districts with their Chinese, Indian, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other communities, living in harmony.
  • Discover how the British wrote TRADE and EMPIRE into the urban planning and the architecture of their showpiece cities in the East Indies.
  • Visit colonial George Town, Penang – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and explore what remains of the British colonial heritage today. Also take a walk down the city’s “Street of Harmony”, a single street where many religions co-exist.
  • Get a glimpse into the life of the British colonials in the cities in the Far East – including Rangoon, Penang and Singapore.
  • Dive in deep into colonial Singapore, uncovering what it used to look like in the 1800s and 1900s, and discovering how the urban landscape has changed dramatically in the 20th century.
  • Find out more about the lives of the Sarkies Brothers, and the history of their three most famous hotels – the Strand Hotel (Rangoon), the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (Penang) and the Raffles Hotel (Singapore).

…amongst other things.

Tales of Asia IV – Saigon (HCMC) and Hanoi HIGHLIGHTS

Highlights from the fourth Tales of Asia talk on Saigon and Hanoi, at the Marine Parade Public Library, Singapore on 8 November 2015 are here.

Full talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=df5t70mbXaA&feature=youtu.be

Tales of Asia IV – Saigon (HCMC) & Hanoi, 8 Nov, Sunday, 2 – 3 pm, Marine Parade Public Library

Rue Catinat in the 1930s, with the Hotel Continental at right.

Rue Catinat in the 1930s, with the Hotel Continental at right.

Part IV of Tales of Asia features the cities of Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi, capitals of French Indochina in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the most dynamic cities in today’s Vietnam.

Join me as we travel back in time to:

  • Take a guided tour through the French colonial architecture of Old Town Saigon, uncovering what remains today from the French era, what remains unchanged and what has changed drastically.
  • Explore la Rue Catinat in Saigon – the Orchard Road and Champs Élysées of the 1900s – 1950s, with its fashionable cafés, boutiques and specialty delicatessen. Peer into the lives of the French in Saigon.
  • Learn of how the French brought their Culture and Civilisation Francaise to Hanoi, only to come up against a far older and more enduring influence – that of the Chinese.  [Spoiler: I reveal the strong link between quốc ngữ - 國語 - and Chinese Han characters.]
  • Explore the Sino-Vietnamese heritage of Old Town Hanoi (河內), including Hoan Kiem Lake (湖還劍) the former Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, the Temple of Literature (文廟), and the 36 Streets (三十六行).
  • Take a pleasant wander through the French quarter of Hanoi, ending off at la Terrasse of the splendid Hôtel Métropole.

…amongst other things.

Tales of Asia III – Bangkok & Phnom Penh HIGHLIGHTS

Highlights from the second Tales of Asia talk on Bangkok and Phnom Penh, at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore on 30 October 2015 are here.

A link to the full talk is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCFaDv0gfBE

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London. Find it at: http://www.amazon.co.uk,http://www.amazon.com, http://www.waterstones.com and http://www.bookdepository.com.]   

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary: Old Manila

Fort Santiago, Intramuros.  This is a latter-day restoration of how the Fort entrance would've looked like in the Spanish Colonial era.

Fort Santiago, Intramuros. This is a latter-day restoration of how the Fort entrance would’ve looked like in the Spanish Colonial era.

Manila was once the Pearl of the Orient, until it was largely demolished in the aftermath of World War II (the Battle of Manila). Since then, restoration of the city, particularly the historic Walled City of Intramuros, has taken place in fits and starts. But don’t let it stop you from visiting the Walled City though – amidst the ruins, and the informal settlements, are beautiful pieces of Spanish-Filipino architecture, most restored, but some original.

Here are the 5 must sees:

Intramuros

✑ The Church of San Agustin (1607), to be transported into the world of mediaeval Spain. The Church was the only one of Manila’s eight churches left standing in the aftermath of World War II – inside, there is a stunning museum of 17th – 19th century religious art. The church was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Casa Manila, for a so-authentic-its-eerie reconstruction of a wealthy colonial-era mestizo (Eurasian) household. The museum was commissioned by Imelda Marcos herself, and demonstrates the wealth and opulence of many a resident in Intramuros in the Spanish Colonial era.

Fort Santiago, to gaze in amazement at the mediaeval fortifications and walk along parts of the Wall. Follow this with a general wander through the streets of Intramuros, in particularly down General Luna / Real de Palacio Street, for Manila Cathedral and other ruined/restored colonial-era facades.

Extramuros

Rizal Park, formerly known as La Luneta in the Spanish Colonial era.  Pay your respects at the Rizal Monument, and pay a visit to the Philippine National Museum for its excellent collection of Spanish colonial era objects, as well as objects salvaged from wrecked Manila Galleons.

✑ Have High Tea at the fabulous Manila Hotel, which sits on a stunning riverfront location overlooking Manila Bay. The hotel and its immediate surrounds was built by the Americans during a brief American Colonial era from 1898 to World War II.

Note that Manila is by any standards, an extremely dangerous city. If you are venturing out alone, even in the day, keep your wits about you.  Don’t carry anything that would draw attention to you. That includes expensive cameras.  

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London. Find it also at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.waterstones.com and http://www.bookdepository.com.] 

Baluarte, or ramparts over the Pasig River, Intramuros.

Baluarte, or ramparts over the Pasig River, Intramuros.

Calesa, or traditional horse-carriage, Intramuros.

Calesa, or traditional horse-carriage, Intramuros.

The San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Casa Manila, restored with traditional Hispano-Philippine architecture.

Casa Manila, restored with traditional Hispano-Philippine architecture.

The Rizal Monument is guarded 24/7 by two "Knights of Rizal."

The Rizal Monument is guarded 24/7 by two “Knights of Rizal.”

The iconic cast-iron entrance to Manila Hotel.

The iconic cast-iron entrance to Manila Hotel.

...and a final look back at Intramuros.

…and a final look back at Intramuros.

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary: Old Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake, shrouded in mist.

Hoan Kiem Lake, shrouded in mist.

Hanoi is a twin city, encompassing both the ancient Sino-Vietnamese Old Town of Hà Nội, or 河內 (meaning “river interior”), as well as a more recent French confection – Hanoï ville. For 1000 years, the city has existed, and has variously been anointed capital city of what is today’s Northern Vietnam. It was also the capital city of French Indochina from 1887 to the Vietnam War.

As a result of its illustrious past, the city is suffused with history and memories, both glorious and painful, intimate and royal.  Here are 5 essential things to do:

✑ Spend some time lingering by the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake 湖還劍 (“Lake of the Returned Sword”)- which lies at the very heart of the city and of Hanoi-ans’ collective memory. Go at dawn when the mist hangs heavy over the water and the view is heart-stoppingly beautiful. While you’re at it, visit the Ngoc Son Temple 祠玉山 (“Jade Mountain Temple”), situated on its very own island; and try to spot the one remaining giant turtle in the Lake’s murky depths before the entire species goes extinct.

✑ Explore the Old Town, also known as the 36 Streets (36 行), each dedicated to a particular traditional trade. Again, go at dawn, when people and motorbikes have’t yet appeared, so you can actually see the surprisingly varied architecture of the buildings, and leisurely stumble onto the dozens of temples dotting the area.  Note that in Chinese, the character for “trade” is the same as that for “street” – 行.

✑ Pay a visit to the Temple of Literature or Van Mieu 文廟, and pour over the ancient stelae documenting the names, in Chinese characters, of scholars who passed the Imperial Examinations. Temples of Literature are dedicated to Confucius and may be found in China and nations traditionally in China’s sphere of influence: Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

✑ Take a walk down the city’s colonial quarters situated to the East and Southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake. Here you will find such grandiose monuments to la civilisation française – the likes of the Old Opera House, the Gothic Cathedral of St John and the former Banque de L’Indochine. Here also, you will find the infamous Maison Central, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” and used as a prison for dissidents during the Colonial and Vietnam War eras.

✑ Take a tour of the city by a vintage 1950s Citroën (offered by the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel), for a delightfully nostalgic trip down memory lane, and the novelty value of having people stare at you through the windows.

Hanoi, like its sister city Saigon, is polluted, noisy, difficult to navigate and oftentimes completely enervating, on account of the traffic (and those thousands of feral motorbikes). The best time to see the city is at dawn, when everything is still and you are able to experience and appreciate the city as it was a hundred years ago. The best time to visit the city is during its winter season – Hanoi is only one degree south of Hong Kong and does actually get chilly towards December.

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London. Find it also at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.waterstones.com and http://www.bookdepository.com.] 

Hang Ma (or Votive Offering Street) in the Old Town, decked out for Tet - the Vietnamese / Chinese Lunar New Year.

Hang Ma (or Votive Offering Street) in the Old Town, decked out for Tet – the Vietnamese / Chinese Lunar New Year.

A variation on the traditional shophouse architecture found all over Southeast Asia - here in Hanoi's Old Town.

A variation on the traditional shophouse architecture found all over Southeast Asia – here in Hanoi’s Old Town.

Names of graduates of the Imperial Examination, carved onto steles at the Temple of Literature.

Names of graduates of the Imperial Examination, carved onto steles at the Temple of Literature.

Hanoi's gothic Cathedral of St John.

Hanoi’s gothic Cathedral of St John.

The Hanoi Opera House and the Hilton Hotel.

The Hanoi Opera House and the Hilton Hotel.

The other "Hanoi Hilton."

The other “Hanoi Hilton.”

Vintage Citroens at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel.

Vintage Citroens at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel.

Inscription in Chinese characters at the Ngoc Son Temple reads "Wind and Moon."

Inscription in Chinese characters at the Ngoc Son Temple reads “Wind and Moon.”

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary: Old Saigon

Dawn over the Saigon River - view from my balcony at the Hotel Majestic.

Dawn over the Saigon River – view from my balcony at the Hotel Majestic.

Old Saigon has been remarkably well-preserved in today’s Ho Chi Minh City, and there is a resurgence of nostalgia for the (colonial) past that means more of the city’s French architecture is slated to be restored.  If you block out the ubiquitous drone of the motorbikes, and look past the equally ubiquitous visage of Ho Chi Minh, the heart of Ho Chi Minh City – Old Saigon itself -makes for a delightful wander.  Here are five essentials:

✑ A promenade down Rue Catinat, ancien Champs Elysées of Saigon, and the backdrop of many a memorable scene from the Vietnam War. This street has the city’s most important monuments, including the former Opera House, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the City Hall.

✑ Rue Catinat and its environs also plays host to all the city’s famous grand hotels. Stop for a cup of tea at the outdoor terrasse of Hotel Continental, to pay homage to Somerset Maugham, circa 1929. Head to the rooftop bar at Hotel Majestic for an aperitif to pay homage to Graham Greene, circa 1950 and to take in the spectacular views of the Saigon River.

✑ Pay a visit to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, to soak in the delicious period atmosphere of the building – this was the former residence of the Governor of Cochinchina. The exhibitions and displays themselves are rather more propagandistic in nature, but also make for an educational experience.

✑ Have a meal at Quan An Ngon, a chain of Vietnamese street food restaurants that occupy French colonial buildings. These are immensely popular with the locals and the local fare served there, though pricey by local standards, is delicious.

✑ Visit Cholon – Saigon’s Chinatown, to luxuriate in the sensuous atmosphere described in Marguerite Duras’ novel, The Lover.

Old Saigon typifies the “ROMANCE” in Romance of the Grand Tour, particularly in the early mornings and late evenings, when the streets are devoid of those pesky motorbikes, and one is transported back a hundred years to L’Indochine Française.

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London. Find it also at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.waterstones.com and http://www.bookdepository.com.] 

The beaming visage of Uncle Ho at the General Post Office building.

The beaming visage of Comrade Ho at the General Post Office building.

Statue of Comrade Ho before the former City Hall Building.

Statue of Comrade Ho before the former City Hall Building.

The Hotel Continental, on Rue Catinat.

The Hotel Continental, on Rue Catinat.

Colonial era apartments on rue Catinat.

Colonial era apartments on rue Catinat.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon, and a par of newly weds.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon, and a par of newly weds.

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum was the former residence of the Governor of Cochinchina.

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum was the former residence of the Governor of Cochinchina.

Miss Saigon, in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Miss Saigon, in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

A moment of silence - an old lady sits amidst the ancient banyans, contemplating the past and the future.

A moment of silence – an old lady sits amidst the ancient banyans, contemplating the past and the future.