Thursday, 26 February 2015

Timber Tongkang, the last of Singapore's sailing traders

Commercial sailing vessels lasted a long time after the invention of steamships. Right up to the second world war, large four-masted square-rigged vessels sailed the Southern Ocean carrying wool and other goods. Until the mid-1970s fishing schooners sailed to the Grand Banks off Canada in search of cod. In Indonesia today, Bugis schooners continue to carry goods under sail. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the brigantine Tres Hombres, which has no engine whatsoever, has been carrying goods under sail since 2009.

In Singapore, commercial sailing vessels transported goods until the mid 1980s. The last of these were the timber tongkangs, which were unique to Singapore.

These were large wooden boats, about 90 feet from stem to stern, and 30 feet wide, with a depth amidships of 12-15 feet. They carried a long bowsprit forward, which had a characteristic lattice appearance when viewed from above, and were steered with a tiller attached to a large, stern-hung perforated rudder. Timber tongkangs were built for the purpose of carrying logs of timber, although later on they also carried firewood and charcoal, and traded between Singapore, southern Johor and Sumatra. They were designed, built and sailed by Chinese, but had a western gaff ketch rig , with a boomed mizzen, a loose footed main, staysail, and jibs. Accommodation for the crew of 6 to 7 men was in a raised area at the stern.

The timber tongkang was slow and unwieldy. However, used to transport non-perishable goods, it was economical to operate and could be used in areas with rudimentary port facilities, which explains why it persisted as long as it did.

I've been doing some research into these vessels which were a characteristic feature of the Kallang Basin in Singapore (now part of the Marina Bay), and I'll be writing more about them.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Singapore House 1819 - 1942 by Lee Kip Lin

The Singapore House 1819 - 1942 by Lee Kip Lin (my father) is a detailed account of Singapore domestic architecture during the colonial period, from the foundation of the colony up to its fall to the Japanese. It is beautifully illustrated and very readable, a great resource for anyone interested in the topic. It remains to this day the only major work on the subject.

Published in 1988, it has been out of print for many years but has now been reissued in a facsimile edition by Marshall Cavendish, and is currently available in bookshops in Singapore, as well as from online retailers.

I was invited to write a tip in page for special copies of the book. Here is what I wrote:

My father was born in 1925, just after the high noon of the British Empire, and grew up surrounded by the houses described in this book. Shortly after the Japanese occupation, he departed for Britain where he studied architecture at the Bartlett School of University College London. He then worked for a bit as an architect for the London County Council before returning to Singapore. Although his training took place in the 1950s during the heroic period of modern architecture, students at the Bartlett chafed under a curriculum that was heavily traditional, and grounded in the classics. One of the things he had to do as a first year student was to render in line and wash a Corinthian column, as well as the alphabet in Roman letters, for which he was awarded "first mention".

However in his outlook and practice he was always a firm modernist, and he believed that architecture should reflect the spirit, materials and technology of the age. He was totally opposed to building in the styles of the past.

Those who spend a substantial time abroad often appreciate and see things in their native land in ways which they otherwise might not. Going to England in the 1950s was a very different proposition from what it is now. Travel between Singapore and England took several weeks by sea, and people did not generally come home for holidays because of the time and expense. There were few foreigners, and rice was mostly served as a dessert. It was a totally immersive experience.

I think that having spent years in England, studying and visiting the architectural wonders of Britain and Europe, he returned to Singapore to find that there were marvellous things all around him which everyone either took for granted, or dismissed out of hand. When he started photographing and researching the houses and buildings of Singapore, almost nobody was interested in such things. After independence, rapid urban redevelopment, coupled with a lack of appreciation of our architectural heritage, resulted in demolition of old houses and buildings on a massive scale, often to be replaced by inferior work. Many of the buildings depicted in this book are long gone.

I believe that my father would have been pleased by the growing interest in Singapore for our history and heritage. Just enough of pre-war architecture remains so that we can get some sense of what it was like before the war. And I think that he would also be pleased that today's architects in Singapore are designing buildings of our own time and age.

Now, in an era of apartment blocks and condos, The Singapore House changes our perspective.

The Singapore House 1819 - 1942 by Lee Kip Lin
First published in 1988, Facsimile edition 2015 by Marshall Cavendish

Thursday, 12 February 2015

For those in peril on the Broads

It was the end of an enjoyable day out on the Norfolk Broads. We had hired a genuine vintage wooden sailing boat, built in the 1940s, a 20 foot long open half-decked vessel with no cabin, a single easily handled balanced lug sail, and a pair of oars but no engine, perfect for pottering around. As the only one of our party of three who could sail, I was in sole command.

It was now time to head for home. The wind had been light that day, and we had often needed to get the oars out. In fact, we had rowed part of the way back, but the merest whisper of a breeze had sprung up as we approached the boatyard from which we had set out that morning so that we could sail in. I pointed the bow down a narrow channel formed by two parallel jetties leading to the yard, and we slid gently down between the lines of moored boats.

The wind grew stronger and we began to pick up speed. On one or two occasions the boom brushed against the rigging of another boat. With growing concern, I realised that with the wind almost directly astern, there was no way of slowing down and nowhere to turn in the channel. I started to get really worried as I realised that I had no idea as to what to do other than brace myself for the inevitable impact at the end of the channel as part of the nation's nautical heritage splintered about me and my companions.

Just as everything seemed hopeless, a voice from the shore shouted "Put the helm down now!" I understood immediately what he meant, and did as he said. The slightly wider body of water in which the channel terminated had just enough space for the boat to turn smartly head to wind, and come to an elegant stop.

Bystanders came up to congratulate me on my skill. I looked around for my saviour but he was nowhere to be found. My shipmates had no idea that anything was amiss. I had nightmares about it for weeks afterwards.

Note: should you find yourself in this situation, what you should do is take down the sail prior to your approach, and row in.

If you fancy sailing a traditional boat on the Norfolk Broads, have a look at Hunter's Yard. They are owned by a charity and have a fleet of classic sailing craft for hire, ranging in size from open boats like the one we hired (where you can sleep on board under a tent cover), to cabin yachts with up to 4 berths. They also provide instruction.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

"Third wave" coffee: sour, unpleasant, and trendy

I thought it was due to lack of training and skill. I found that there were lots of rather attractive coffee bars springing up around Brick Lane and Shoreditch, with inviting interiors, serving a range of single origin coffees. Most dispensed coffee from espresso machines, but some also served filtered and cold brew coffee. But then I found that in the majority the coffee was sour. Sometimes the addition of milk made it just about drinkable, but not always. And the phenomenon was found elsewhere too, always in high end or specialist establishments. Interestingly, never in chains like Costa.

I did a bit of online research recently and discovered quite a lot of discussion about sour coffee, clearly a problem for some home brewers who have invested in expensive espresso machines. It turns out that an unpleasant sourness (as distinct from brightness or pleasant acidity) can result from over-extraction of tannic acid as a result of inappropriate temperature or pressure in the espresso machine, and sometimes related to the fineness of the grind.

Then another thread became apparent. It turns out that there are people who actually try to make their coffee taste like this. This is the so called "third wave" of coffee, where coffee is treated as a complex artisanal product, roasted lightly and brewed to bring out the flavour and complexity of the fruit. It's true that coffee is a fruit, but the beans which are roasted to make the drink are the seed (not the flesh), so this seems like a strange thing to aspire to. The resultant products are described as having elements of things like tangerine, root beer, bergamot, grapefruit, and so on, just like in the wine trade.

To each his own. I'm sure there are some people who genuinely like their coffee done this way. I've tried the stuff on quite a few occasions, and I can taste the elements they described, but to me it's mouth-puckeringly sour and nasty.

I'm sure that here are people who don't like this third wave stuff, but think that it's the way gourmet coffee is meant to taste. In some circles in the US, it appears that a preference for dark coffee is regarded as unsophisticated.

For my part, I have tried it enough times to know that I dislike it. I have learnt to approach trendy coffee bars with caution, and to avoid those that describe their brew as "fruity". In fact, I can't help thinking that the coffee emperor has no clothes, and furthermore is abusing a plant which is on the verge of being endangered due to climate change .

The perfect antidote to this hipster third wave coffee? Traditional Singapore and Malaysian coffee, or "kopi". A rich, dark brew made from beans roasted in sugar and butter until they are dark and glossy. It is prepared in the time honoured way in coffee shops throughout the region, strained through a sock-like filter. The result is a dark, black, richly-flavoured drink with moderate bitterness, almost no acidity, and a luscious mouthfeel. It's served by default with condensed milk, or black with sugar (kopi-o), black without sugar (kopi-o kosong), and in numerous other variants. As far as I am aware, it's unobtainable in the UK, but I think it would be a great business opportunity.