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Chinatown & Orchard Road, Singapore

Sowerby & Luff write…

To our surprise, Chinatown in Singapore was adorned with Christmas decorations. Neither Georgina nor I had ever been in a hot country during the run up to the festive season, and it was truly bizarre to see Santa Claus and his reindeer sweltering in the tropical heat, or Frosty the Snowman set up next to a golden statue of Buddha.

We weaved our way through the colourful shops and stalls.
“You want to buy a nice silk shirt for Christmas?” said a tailor.
“No thanks,” I said determinedly.
“Come inside, I show you a nice shirt.”
“I really don’t want to buy a shirt, thank you,” I emphasised. But it was too late. I was an English tourist in Chinatown, and it was my job to buy a shirt. It was my absolute destiny to buy a shirt. To fight it was pointless.
“This shirt suits you,” he said, holding a shirt that didn’t suit me up to my chest. “Forty Singapore dollar.”
“No thank you.” I repeated.
“How much would you pay for this shirt?” said the tailor.
“I don’t know, twenty dollars?” I said. “Ten?”
“Sold,” he said. “You want a nice tie to go with that?”

“Why are you wearing that horrible shirt?” asked Georgina, clearly concerned that she’d only left me for about three minutes, and I’d already started spending our money on random items.
“I just bought it for ten dollars,” I said proudly.
“What was the other shirt like?” asked Georgina.
“Sorry?”
“Well, surely you must have got two shirts for that money!”

We decided to do the next section of the Singapore podcast while we were in Chinatown, but almost as soon as we began to record, the heavens opened and we experienced our first full-on tropical monsoon. Despite the weather, we kept going and the stereo sound of the rain beating down on the streets turned out to be one of the most dramatic recordings we made in Asia. At one point, while we were reading a listener’s email, you can hear us both jump clean out of our skins at a mighty crack of thunder.

Our favourite yuletide decoration in Singapore was a spectacular walk-in Nativity scene in Orchard Road. At 8pm every evening, fake snow, in the form of what appeared to be bubble bath foam, spread up and over the Nativity, causing much excitement to anyone under ten, and much hilarity for anyone over. Of course, the fake snow melted within a couple of minutes, but no-one seemed to care.
“Isn’t there something missing here?” I asked Georgina.
She counted off on her fingers. “Er, shepherds, sheep, wise men, Mary, Joseph…”
“There’s no baby Jesus,” I said.
Sure enough, the crib contained no Saviour, but in place of the Holy Child was a life-sized model of Lassie the Wonder Dog. In this modern climate, no city council wants to offend anyone, and there is an annoying dismissal of anything that represents any specific religion above another.
“I suppose it’s multi-denominational,” I said. “A dog that rescued mankind is considered a suitable substitute for the Lord Our God”.
“The Lord Our Dog,” said Georgina.
“Bark The Herald Angels Sing!” I said.
We left it there. Georgina and I were still not ready to embrace the Christmas spirit, it being too damned hot to walk more than five steps at a time.

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The Peak, Hong Kong

Sowerby & Luff write…

Following our Hong Kong tourist map carefully, we climbed up Lok Ku Road through the tumbledown “stone ladder” streets and markets of the “Mid-Levels”. This part of Hong Kong appears to have been built almost entirely at a steep angle, and most of the shops and stalls seem to feature exotic sea creatures awaiting execution. Here you can choose your dinner based on how fast it can swim. We snapped many photos of Georgina giving the Last Rights to various lobsters, shrimp and crabs. After much semi-vertical walking, we gave up and climbed onto the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, arriving in the SoHo district moments later.

SoHo’s crammed with shops, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and art galleries, and the most famous street is probably Hollywood Road, which is where all the antique shops are. In the window of one antique shop in Hollywood Road was the largest and most intricately carved elephant’s tusk we had ever seen.
“I thought it was illegal to sell ivory” said Georgina.
“Maybe what’s why there’s a sign in the window which reads “NO PHOTO” I said.
Georgina and I were disgusted at the amount of ivory that was on sale in Hollywood Road. You’d think that such a modern, civilized city as Hong Kong would take a more responsible view about what’s sold in its antique shops.
For a while we tried following the “Sun Yat-Sen Historical Trail” through “Sixteen points of historical interest”, but we quickly realised that most of the ancient sites on the tour have long been bulldozed and replaced by concrete skyscrapers. The architect who decided to build a multi-story residential complex alongside the Man Mo Temple should be put to death along with those lobsters.

The most spectacular view of Hong Kong is from The Peak, and it’s way too high to climb on foot, so we took the Peak Tram to the very top. The Trams originally used a steam engine to haul the cars but, thankfully, the whole thing was rebuilt 15 years ago, and it’s now got a computerized control system.
“So it’s perfectly safe?” asked Georgina, her eyes squeezed tightly shut.
“Yes,” I said. “It carries 11,000 passengers a day, and most of them travel with their eyes open.”
“I’ll be fine as long as it doesn’t stop, at a 45 degree angle, half way up the slope,” she said.
10 minutes later, the Tram stopped, at a 45 degree angle, half way up the slope.
“Can I get off now?” asked Georgina.
“When we get to the top,” I said.

It had been a while since we’d encountered any noisy road works or ear-splitting building work on our travels, so when we arrived at The Peak it was reassuring to hear the sound of pneumatic drills, electric saws and steam hammers. The normally quiet and tranquil gardens at the very top were being redeveloped, and the air was thick with dust, smoke and fumes.

My hands clamped over my ears, I approached a distinguished-looking Englishman, who looked like he could handle a camera.
“Lovely day!” I screamed at the top of my voice.
“Yes!” he shouted back.
“Would you mind taking a picture of us?” I yelled.
“I’d be delighted,” he hollered back.
I handed him the camera. I had found my photographer. The hard bit was now going to be getting Georgina to stand anywhere near the edge of the viewing platform, so that we could get the best possible picture of us in Hong Kong.
“No way,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere near that edge. That must be a thousand foot drop.”
“But there’s a handrail, and protective glass and everything” I said.
“I’m sorry, but no” she said.
“Just one,” I said.
“No.”
“You can keep your eyes closed,” I said.
“No!”
“I’ll give you five dollars.”
“Excuse me!” said the distinguished-looking Englishman. “Would you like me to take this photograph or not?”
Using a combination of bribery, Valerian, and distorted perspective, we finally managed to take a photograph which made it look as if downtown Hong Kong and Sowerby and Luff were in roughly the same place at the same moment in history.

On the way back to street level, Georgina discovered that the only thing more alarming than the Peak Tram going uphill at 45 degrees, was the Peak Tram going downhill, backwards, at 45 degrees. Once again, she clamped her eyes firmly shut.
“Tell me when it’s over,” she said.

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Avenue of Stars, Kowloon

Sowerby & Luff write…

We took the Star Ferry across the harbour from Hong Kong to Kowloon and recorded a section of our podcast on the Avenue of Stars, which we stumbled upon purely by accident while looking for the ladies’ toilets. Georgina’s bladder is an extremely annoying beast. Even without any liquid intake whatsoever, it seems to require emptying about every 30 minutes, which can be very frustrating and leads to many silent moments of desperation.

The Avenue of Stars is on the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade in Kowloon and it’s Hong Kong’s equivalent of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The pavement’s strewn with the names and concrete hand prints of China’s top movie stars, and the whole place cost over 40 million Hong Kong Dollars to build.

“Wow, look at the names of all these movie stars!” I said to Georgina.
“Here’s Lai Man Wai and Cheung Wood Yau !”
“That’s nothing,” said Georgina. “I’ve found the handprints of Wong Man Lei and Zhu Shi Lin.”
“What was Wong Man Lei in again?” I asked.
“I can’t remember,” said Georgina. “But who could ever forget Tso Tat Wah and Kwan Tak Hing in the remake of Tang Wing Cheung.”
“I thought Tso Tat Wah was dead” I said.
“No, that was Tso Tat Hing,” said Georgina.

Thus proving that even in this politically correct world, English people will never, ever grow tired of taking the piss out of Chinese names.

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Botanical Gardens, Singapore

Sowerby & Luff write…

We jumped into another cab and headed for the Botanical Gardens.
“The world-famous Botanical Gardens, please” we said to the driver.
“Where’s that?” he said.

The gardens were huge, and packed with giant jungle plant life. They also had the noisiest insects you’ve ever heard in your life.
“What do you think of Singapore so far?” asked Georgina.
“Pardon?” I said.

Gasping for breath in the stifling heat, we strolled into the Orchid Garden, which was full of tourists. We sat and watched one group of Japanese orchid enthusiasts take it in turns to stand in front of a particular species of orchid, take a photograph, then move on to the next species of orchid. When they’d done this about fifteen times, I turned to Georgina.
“How many species of orchid do they have in here?” I asked.
She consulted the guidebook. “Three thousand,” she said.
We wandered from tree to unrecognisible tree and recorded the introduction to our Singapore podcast. Past Swan Lake, through fountains and pagodas, and into formally planted areas of quiet solace, filled with Bonsai trees. After 20 minutes we were knackered.
“I need to take shower,” said Georgina.
“Pass me the oxygen,” I said.