Darkness and light, Lower Manhattan

18 11 2015

Lower Mahattan, seen in the magical light of the bright spring sunshine in April this year:

The East Coast Memorial at Battery Park.

The East Coast Memorial at Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty.

The rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House at Bowling Green.

The rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House at Bowling Green.

A staircase inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

A staircase inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Bowling Green.

Buildings at Bowling Green.

Inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Inside the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.

Trinity Church as viewed from Wall Street.

Trinity Church as viewed from Wall Street.

Detail on an entrance door to Trinity Church.

Detail on an entrance door to Trinity Church.

Darkness and light, death and life, Trinity Church Cemetery.

Darkness and light, death and life, Trinity Church Cemetery.

View from the yard of St. Paul's Chapel.

View from the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel.

City Hall Park.

City Hall Park.

New York City Hall.

New York City Hall.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge.

Thomas Paine Park and the New York County Supreme Court.

Thomas Paine Park and the New York County Supreme Court.

Light and shadow.

Where the light shines – the Police Building and the view down Grand Street.

Lafayette Street (near intersection with Kenmare Street).

Lafayette Street near its intersection with Kenmare Street.

Lafayette Street.

Lafayette Street.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Washington Square.

Union Square.

Union Square.



Borobudur in the light of darkness

13 12 2013

It was in the semi-darkness of a rain washed December’s afternoon that I first set eyes on Borobudur. Even through the dreariness of the semi-darkness, it wasn’t difficult to be taken by the splendour of the temple built over a hill – one that has been described to be the world’s largest Buddhist sanctuary. There seemed also to be an air of mystery surrounding the temple, heightened perhaps by the mood the fast shifting clouds overhead provided in painting the elaborately decorated stepped structure with changing patterns of darkness and filtered light.

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There is certainly much mystery about the age ravaged pyramid shaped structure that rises on the Kedu Plain some 42 kilometres northwest of the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java. Thought to have been built in the 8th and 9th century (between 750 and 842), well before the famed temples of Angkor took shape, not much is understood as to the motivation for what must have been a monumental effort – its construction involved bringing in and working some 60,000 cubic metres of Mount Merapi stone (some 2 million pieces in all). Fiction does accompany fact, in the many stories we do hear of its construction today.

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Legend, as told by a seemingly well-informed guide, Budi, does have it that Borobudur was the work of giants – one lies asleep to protect the structure from destruction in the near distance. A glance across the plain in the direction of Budi’s finger reveals the Menoreh range, the ridge line of which does appear to trace the outline of a gigantic sleeping man which some accounts say is Gunadharma, who has also been attributed as the architect of the temple.

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Whether it has been through a divine hand, or due to the protection offered by the sleeping giant, the monument has, quite remarkably, stood for well over a thousand years. This, despite the fact that Borobudur does lie in the shadow of what has been Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi, and also in an area in which earthquakes are not an infrequent occurrence.

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It is also equally remarkable, that we do today get to celebrate the wonder that is Borobudur. Abandoned as far back as the 11th century, it was subsequently forgotten as Islam spread across Java. For over eight centuries the abandoned temple was to lie crumbling and well hidden from sight. Buried not just in volcanic ash from Mount Merapi’s frequent eruptions, but also behind a wall of overgrown trees, it wasn’t until 1814 that the then Lieutenant Governor of Java, Sir Stamford Raffles, uncovered the long lost monument.

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The immense work of devotion sits on a base measuring 119 metres square over which the temple’s nine terraces rise – which takes the shape of a Mandala when viewed from above. The terraces, the first six are square and the three topmost ones are circular, are pathways around which a pilgrim circles on a journey of spiritual learning which takes the pilgrim around and upwards towards the summit. There are three levels on the journey the pilgrim takes, levels which correspond to the stages that the Bodhisattva must pass through in the journey to Enlightenment: Kamadhatu, Rupadhatu and Arupadhatu – the last being the stage when the soul departs from the body to unite with the gods in Nirvana.

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The path the pilgrim takes which provides a deeper understanding of how Nirvana can be achieved, would have been a rather long one. The journey involves a study of and reflection on reliefs which depict scenes which provide lessons in morality and spirituality, taking a pilgrim from the east on a clockwise path three times around each level. This would allow the study in sequence of three rows of reliefs on each of the two lower levels, Kamadhatu and Rupadhatu – one row lines the balustrade with another two lining the terrace’s inner walls, involving a total of 1460 reliefs (there are another 1212 panels of decorative reliefs).

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At the Arupadhatu level, the appearance of the three tiers which form it, departs from the relief heavy lower levels. Without the balustrades of the lower tiers, the level offers a magnificent view of the plain surrounding the temple, through the stupas arranged on each tier. There are 72 small stupas in all with a large stupa right in the centre which tops the structure. The smaller stupas are constructed with openings in them, through which the images of Buddhas can be seen and also touched. 32 are found around the edge of the lowermost of the top three terraces, followed 24 on the next tier and 16 on the topmost tier.

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One of the touristy things one can do is to join the popular sunrise or sunset tour organised by Manohara Hotel – the only hotel that is within the grounds of the temple (Manohara, which lies a short distance away from the temple, while not the best hotel around, is the place to stay if you do intend to visit Borobudur – rooms are taken up rather fast, and it will be best to book well ahead of your visit). This is highly recommended as you do get some rather stunning views against the colours painted by the rising or setting sun. Unfortunately the skies conspired not to allow me the pleasure of that, although I was able once again to capture the temple in a rather different mood.

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While I am not a very spiritual person, the visit to Borobudur did fill me with the sense of calm and perhaps a sense of contemplation – possibly in the same way it the sanctuary was to have imparted this to its pilgrims of a thousand years before. The visit did also fill me with a sense of awe for what could be achieved through the sheer determination of the human spirit – in erecting a monument of devotion, more so than gazing at the great cathedrals of Europe or the temples of Angkor have done. It is for this that I shall return one day to gaze once more at its splendour and perhaps walk the pilgrim path in search of the peace that comes with reaching its summit.

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Useful information on Borobudur:

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Luchtfoto van de Borobudur TMnr 10015636
An aerial view of Borobudur

(source: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

More photographs of Borobudur and its reliefs

Borobudur by night as seen from the Manohara.

Borobudur by night as seen from the Manohara.

The sleeping giant in the distance lending protection to the temple.

The sleeping giant in the distance lending protection to the temple.

Reliefs lining a lower terrace,

Reliefs lining a lower terrace.

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Monoscapes: Dawn of a new world

19 07 2013

Seen against the light of dawn by the Tebrau or Johor Strait is a fence at the beach in Sembawang. More recently erected, it marked, for some reason, a long discarded boundary between what used to be a huge British naval base, vacated in 1971 and the area to its east, once occupied by coastal villages, the last of which was cleared in the later half of the 1990s. The fence came down two weeks ago, coinciding with the completion of “renewal” work at Sembawang Park which was developed at the end of the 1970s on the eastern edge of the former base. For long spared from the huge wave of development that has swept across much of the island of Singapore, the Sembawang area is in the midst of change as new public housing and luxury private residential developments in the area will transform what was an area with a well known laid-back feel and old world charm into another well populated and overly manicured neighbourhood in new Singapore.


A last cup of kopi-o at Blk 398 Canteen

1 05 2013

It is always nice to drop in on a place that is reminiscent of a world we can no longer see such as the Blk 398 Canteen. Operating on the grounds of the former Seletar Camp since 1969, it was for long insulated against the winds of change which seem to sweep across much of the island of Singapore  over the four decades that have passed. Said to be one of the last “kampong kopitiam” (village coffee shop) in Singapore, it maybe is less of the kampong kopitiam many of us might wish that it is, seemingly more like a world caught in transition, but one certainly in which time does seem to have long stood still.

Having a cup of kopi-o at the Blk 398 Canteen takes one back in time.

Having a cup of kopi-o at the Blk 398 Canteen takes one back in time.

The canteen sign painted on a corrugated zinc sheet exterior wall.

The canteen sign painted on a corrugated zinc sheet exterior wall.

The canteen takes its name from its address at 398 Piccadilly. The address is itself a throwback to to days now long forgotten when the area was part of the Royal Air Force’s RAF Seletar. Completed in 1928, the former air station and its grounds was for a long while after the 1971 British pullout, well preserved – an area rich in charm, the eastern side of the former air station was used to house several Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) military units, while some 378 colonial houses on its western side were turned over for civilian use. It was in the transition that the canteen commenced operations serving first the RAF personnel before their pullout and the SAF personnel after that.

The outside of Blk 398 Canteen

The outside of Blk 398 Canteen.

A customer entering the canteen.

A customer entering the canteen.

The inside of Blk 398 Canteen.

The inside of Blk 398 Canteen.

The area the canteen is in is now undergoing yet another transition, one which will see the biggest transformation of the area since work commenced on RAF Seletar in the 1920s. The transformation will see the Jurong Town Corporation’s (JTC) Seletar Aerospace Park built over much of the area which the former RAF Seletar occupied and will see some 174 of the “black and white” houses – former homes of RAF personnel which provided the area with much of its charm, demolished. This transition is also one which will also see the 44 year old canteen go (it was supposed to have been closed last December) and with it one of the last chances to have that cup of kopi-o in Singapore today, as it might have been yesterday.

Houses left behind by the RAF provided the area with much of its previous charm.

Houses left behind by the RAF provided the area with much of its previous charm.

Another view of the inside.

Another view of the inside.

Concertina wire - a reminder of the former military site on the fence of the canteen.

Concertina wire – a reminder of the former military site on the fence of the canteen.

Monoscapes: Kampong Wak Hassan beach

2 04 2013

What is possibly one of the last natural accessible stretches of sand along the coastline of the island of Singapore lies along the northern shoreline off Sembawang Park, stretching to the area off the former coastal villages of Kampong Wak Hassan and Kampong Tengah. Except for the attempt to “renew” the area around Sembawang Park which will result in it losing much of its previous charm, the shoreline in the area is one that is relatively untouched. Left in an almost natural state, the beach is one rich in character and in which the memories of a world that has ceased to exist can still be found. With property developments gaining pace in the area, it probably will not be long before the memories provided by the old but falling seawall and the natural beach, are paved over in the same way much of our previously beautiful coastline has.  Until then, it is one of the few places close to a world I would otherwise find hard to remember, in which I can find a rare escape from the concretised world that Singapore has too quickly become.


About the former Kampong Wak Hassan:

The former village (kampong or kampung as it is spelt today), was one of several coastal villages that were found just to the east of Sembawang Road and the former British Naval Base, running along the coastline to Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang. While the coastline played host to the nomadic inhabitants of the Straits of Johor, the Orang Laut, specifically the Orang Seletar, the kampong, stands as the oldest of the settlements in the stretch.

The village came to the location after work to build the huge naval base which ran along the northern coast from what is today Sembawang Road west to to the Causewayin the late 1920s displaced the the original Kampong Wak Hassan which grew from a coconut grove founded by Wak Hassan bin Ali at the original mouth of Sungei Sembawang (the area just west of what is today Sembawang Shipyard) in the 1914 (being granted rights by the Straits Settlements’ Commissioner of Lands to the use of the land stretching from the mouth of the river to Westhill Estate – which became Chong Pang Village).

While the base did provide residents of the village with employment opportunities, most of the villagers who may have originally been employed in rubber plantations which once occupied the lands around the coast and in the coconut groves, were involved in fishing.

The village besides being the oldest in the area, was also the longest lasting. While most of the inhabitants of the other villages were resettled at the end of the 1980s, the last inhabitants of Kampong Wak Hassan only moved out as recently as in 1998.

Previous posts related to Kampong Wak Hassan and the greater Sembawang area:

A place to greet the new day:

Macau: a celebration of contrasts

24 09 2012

Having spent a amazing four days in Macau courtesy of the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) and Tiger Airways, I was able to see for myself the wonderment that is packed into the 29 square kilometres of the tiny former Portuguese territory. It is for me a world certainly worth exploring, a world which is more than just that unique blend of east and west we have come to expect, but also a fascinating world where two other worlds, the glitzy new world has collided with the charming old world. With the two now forced into a tight embrace, it is in the compact territory where contrasts, and as one might see it the contradiction of new with old, are as apparent as black and white, black and white as is how it looks to me:

The celebration of the new world:

A scene from Franco Dragone’s The House of Dancing Water playing at the City of Dreams.

The Outer Harbour with the Friendship Bridge and the waterfront at Fisherman’s Wharf at the break of day (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

The waterfront at Fisherman’s Wharf at the break of day (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

Breakfast at the Café Bela Vista in the Grand Lapa Macau (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

The Roman Amphitheatre at Fisherman’s Wharf (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

Daybreak over the Roman Amphitheatre (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

The Ponte Governador Nobre de Carvalho as seen from Sky 21.

Bottles behind a frosted glass counter, Sky 21.

A new arrival embracing the arrival of the new day in the new world.

Windows into the old world:

The window into an unseen side of Macau – the quays at the Inner Harbour (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

A window from the past … louvered windows seen at the Taipa Houses-Museum, which is housed in a set of charming old colonial houses at Taipa Village.

Fish being dried in the sun.

A street named happiness, the Rua da Felicidade.

An almond cookie maker on the street of happiness.

Almond cookie samples to be offered to passers-by near the ruins of St. Paul’s.

A street food vendor.

A side street near the street of happiness.

Shutters of an old shop (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

Street scene.

Barra Square.

East meets West and old meets new: A western couple leaving the A-Ma Temple.

A fortune teller at the A-Ma Temple.

An archway under a building along an old street of Macau.

A car workshop in an old shophouse.

A female worker at an old building being refurbished.

Disused pellets by the quayside at the Inner Harbour.

Where two worlds are made to collide: the bow of a ship peeks out at the Inner Harbour.

Coloane Village scene (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

A square in Coloane Village (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

The writing on the wall in Taipa Village (photograph taken with a Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF5).

The visit to Macau was made possible by the kind sponsorship of MGTO, flights were sponsored by Tiger Airways with check-in baggage allowances included.

Useful Links:

Macau Government Tourist Office
Tiger Airways

Note: this is a repost of my post on the omy.sg My Macau Experience 2012 site which sees 10 bloggers share experiences of their visit to Macau. Readers will get a chance to vote for their favourite My Macau Experience 2012 blogger and stand a chance to win $1000 worth of Macau travel vouchers. Voting starts on 28 September 2012 and details can be found at the My Macau Experience 2012 Voting page.

An uncoloured exploration of an unfamiliar place

2 09 2012

I found myself in a place I had previously not ventured to, the area centered around Sukhumvit Road where it passes through Chonburi, at the end of last week. As with any new place I was glad to have the opportunity to wander around unfamiliar streets with a camera, spending an hour or so I had before having dinner, in an uncoloured exploration that I felt would best capture the essence of what certainly are very colourful streets.

Hanoi in its shades of grey

6 01 2012

Hanoi, which I visited this winter, is city that has made a big impression on me. It is a city that for a long while, I had wanted to visit. It is a city that has intrigued me in the past, having lived a good part of my younger days in a region whose political climate had very much been influenced by the Cold War, the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Hanoi, along with the rest of Vietnam, is today a very different world from the one that must have emerged from a war that would have devasted it. The city does still have many reminders of the war, as well as of the somewhat chequered history the nation it is a capital to has had. There is always that reminder of the Communist Party that still governs it in flags, banners, posters and also Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum making it difficult not to realise that, even as the country has embraced economic policies that would have those who led it during the war turning in their final resting places.

Two ladies pose in the traditional Ao Dai at the Temple of Literature. Hanoi is where tradition ...

... coexists and blends in with the new world.

An itinerant vendor stares into a shop window.

The charge of the two-wheel brigade on the streets of old Hanoi.

Two wheels that sometimes see well dressed riders dressed fashionably with killer heels.

The juxtaposition of new on the old is evident especially on the streets of the Old Quarter.

More juxtapositions ...

The is a lot of the old that is not just juxtaposed with, but blends very much in with the new that the country’s economic progress over the last two decades has brought. The Hanoi of old, set in the colourful narrow and bustling streets of the Old Quarter, sits beside the Hanoi of the French Colonial masters – its wide avenues and elegant buildings in stark contrast. In both, there are the sidewalks dominated by itinerant vendors or the low tables and stoold set up by vendors operating out of narrow doorways, in instances right next to a shop window with a display of the latest objects of desire. It is at the low tables and stools of the sidewalks where in fact the best fare in a city that celebrates its food can sometimes be savoured. Here well dressed men and women are often spotted sitting on the low stools in what almost seems a posture that lacks dignity, enjoying their night out in the city, or a bowl of pho in the morning before heading into the office. It is in scenes such as this that best illustrates Hanoi as a city that is full of contrasts and perhaps contradictions where it isn’t just where black is seen against white, but where there also are many shades of grey.

Two wheelers prove to be useful in many ways ...

... and many can't leave home with it.

Diners at Chả cá Lã Vọng - a well known restaurant that serves Chả cá - a must try "Grilled Fish" dish.

A pho restaurant spills out into the sidewalk in the Old Quarter.

Sidewalks are the domain of the many itinerant vendors.

Views of more sidewalks.

A young lady having a bowl of pho for breakfast on the sidewalk before heading into the office.

A back lane.

The sidewalks are where many locals are seen enjoying their night out.

Some of the best food can be savoured at the low tables and stools of the sidewalks.

A food vendor operating out of a doorway.

A sidewalk food vendor.

Evening falls on Hoan Kiem Lake - looking at Turtle Tower.