This is my favourite picture of the year, taken by Hedwig on our 10-day driving tour of New Zealand’s South Island in February 2017. We had an itinerary that started at a winery outside Christchurch before we headed south to Mount Cook, Queenstown, Lake Wanaka and Milford Sound but at the last minute we added a place we’d never heard of before, Kaikoura. A tiny town on the coast, and the whale-watching was a treat, but it was this rugged coastline that was totally stunning.
Kaikoura suffered massive damage in an earthquake in November 2016, and the signs were everywhere as we approached the town – damaged roads, detours and such. But the most spectacular event of that earthquake was how more than 100km of coastline was dramatically redrawn, as the seabed rose by up to six meters. It affected everything from fishing and the nesting ground of large colonies of New Zealand fur seals. We walked along the barren rocks that day, unaware at first that this used to be the seabed! The enormousness of the havoc an earthquake can wreak sank in as we lingered, and joined in the excitement of other visitors as we spotted the few seals that had returned.
Kaikoura remains the unexpected star of a short trip. New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries on earth, and South Island made for wonderful drives with spectacular vistas that take your breath away, and then, around a bend in the road, another unbelievably beautiful view of bluest-blue lake, green valley, mountains, the works. I was a little spooked by the absence of New Zealanders in most places we went to. Everyone seemed to be from somewhere else – China, India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the UK, Europe and more.
In Queenstown, our friendly hotel doorman was Neo Wei Yi, an adventurous Singaporean who decided after graduating from Nanyang Technological University to explore career opportunities in hospitality. We went out to dinner together to hear his stories and I swear he’s a young man to watch. At Milford Sound we ran into a bunch of hardy Kiwi trekkers and I asked immediately where everyone else was. “Oh, we all go into hiding when it’s summer,” one of them told me. “We come out in winter when all the tourists are gone.”
There is plenty to remember from those days of exploring, but amazing Kaikoura remains the standout. For about 10 seconds I was almost proud I did Geography in university, but I quickly remembered the rest and it passed.
It was a packed and eventful year, and here are the other contenders for my picture of the year.
I have two special children, Zachary and Nicola. And Christmas to New Year is when they are home from Scotland and Exeter. Ours is as nuclear a family as there can be, because we are not close to relatives on both sides. And sometimes I wonder if my attitude to family sets these two up for drifting apart when Hedwig and I are no longer here. They’ll have to sort things out, and remember Dad said having a few good friends is better than having toxic people in your life.
I spent several months in an office at leafy Evans Road, and it looked like 2017 would be the year when we would start a Singapore edition of The Conversation, but that was not to be for a variety of reasons. It was eye-opening visiting Singapore’s universities and research centres that have so many world-class academics and researchers doing a whole lot of interesting things. The great pity is that most of us will never know what most of them do, because their KPI is to write for academic journals hardly anyone reads. The Conversation might have made a difference in getting more of this band of smart people to write for the layman. I liked putting up my favourite photographs, and then I brought them home.
February Kaikoura, above.
In March I did a presentation at a workshop in Petaling Jaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, for Catholic journalists from across Asia and organised by the Church group Signis. I was not expecting this man to walk in the room. Brother Augustine Julian was one of the Christian Brothers at my school, St John’s Institution, and I last saw him when I left school in 1972. It was good of him to drop by just to say hello, and when I told my Johannian friends about the unexpected pleasure, someone helpfully dug out a photo of Brother Augustine and me from back in the day. Those shorts mean I was 14 or 15 here, because we could only wear long trousers from Form 4 onwards. Yes, I had that grin back then too.
This is my favourite Hong Kong 2017 photo because of that cheerful woman with me, flashing Peace. Hedwig and I did a short trip to Hong Kong to see Cherian and Zuraidah because sometimes we just stop and ask ourselves why is it that so many people we would like to see more often live somewhere else. Singapore is like that, what to do. Hong Kong is about marathon food outings and there is never a bad meal. Everyone who knows you’re going helpfully provides a list of the best this and best that, and only in Hong Kong do I make my way to all corners of a city to have the most wonderful beef noodles here, the delicate dim sum there, and the silky-like-made-in-heaven soybean custard in a pail from that other little street.
We went to Kennedy Town and played with trams. Later, the four of us crammed into a little Uber car and the man raced to seaside Tuen Mun, where you buy your shrimp, fish, shellfish and clams at the row of fresh seafood shops before taking it to one of the many restaurants nearby to be cooked. At Lok Tin Seafood Limited, the shop woman took such a shine to me she was extra-super nice as I spoke in English and she replied in Cantonese. Afterwards she helped us to a crowded restaurant and made sure we were served before she left. We were midway through our meal when she reappeared, with her backpack and on her way home after work. She just wanted to check that all was good and we were happy. Yes, sure I’ll go back to Hong Kong anytime.
This is Kirk Loh Wung Yip and his daughter Melissa, whom we have to thank for leading us all to Restoran Yut Kee at Jalan Kamunting, off Campbell Road in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Kirk and I go back all the way to when we were six-year-olds at the Fatima Kindergarten beside St John’s Institution. We were often in the same class through our SJI years, and in Form 4 and 5, sat next to each other. He was such a big Star Trek fan I nicknamed him Kirk, and it stuck and now it’s on his calling card too. We lost touch for too many years before reconnecting and 2017 was a good year for seeing each other and meeting his family. Melissa took us to Yut Kee for the star attraction, the Hainanese style Pork Chop. It’s a decades-old institution, and attracts a huge crowd especially around lunchtime and on weekends.
Afterwards Kirk and I did a walk through the older part of KL that we knew so well as schoolboys, going past what used to be the Odeon cinema and all along Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, stopping at the age-old Coliseum Cafe for coffee before heading to the Petaling Street Chinatown area. Kirk’s family used to live in a shophouse on the way to the Klang Bus Terminal where I caught my bus home.
There’s plenty that I really like about peninsular Malaysia and in June, Hedwig and I went on a drive with her cousin Kenneth and his wife Hedy, from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh and then Penang, Temenggor Lake, Taiping, Petaling Jaya, Malacca and home to Singapore. This is my favourite picture from a lovely stop along the East-West Highway that cuts across the north of the peninsula, connecting the state of Perak on the west with Kelantan on the east. From the Temenggor Lake where we stayed, we drove to this lookout point along Malaysia’s Main Range of rainforest-covered mountains.
We stopped in Taiping because Kenneth and Hedwig’s grandfather was the station master of the Taiping Railway Station. We found the old station, and visited the beautiful lake gardens. Taiping is where two of my aunts raised large families and I have more Taiping cousins than I can name – my Auntie Girly had 16 children, and Auntie Elsa had 13. (I hope I got that right!) But Hedwig and I dropped in on my very special cousin Anne whom everyone calls Baba (next to me in the photo below), the eldest child of Auntie Girly and Uncle Grego, who worked at rubber plantations all over the place over many decades. While we were at her house, her sister Magdel dropped in with her husband Sivam and we could take this photo.
Our occasional walking group was trying to get to the old Malayan Railway line. We started at Holland Village, then couldn’t find our way. It turned out that the section of the track we were looking for was closed. So we had coffee instead, and wandered through the high-rises of Buona Vista. At the core of this group of good friends are three of Hedwig’s classmates and their husbands. In this picture at left are Hun Hoe, who was my classmate in St John’s for many years, and he married Sock who was Hedwig’s classmate of many years. One of those “just fancy that” things that happen. In the middle is the one and only Shirley, but where did Eddie go? Pauline and Robert, and Pauline’s sister Mamie, gave up and missed being in my favourite July photo.
The Asia Journalism Fellowship 2017 happened from mid July to mid October. I really like this photo of the 2017 Fellows in Chinatown, because every year that I am involved with this programme that brings journalists from across Asia to Singapore, I learn something new about this place. Here, the extraordinary geographer Victor Savage took us on a tour of Chinatown pointing out interesting details at a keramat, a Hindu temple, a wet market and just about everywhere you looked, that told us so much about Singapore. This was a fun bunch of journalists from India to Mongolia and most of Southeast Asia. So much to learn from each other and about each other’s countries. So many songs to sing, and dances to dance. Never a dull moment!
I’m working on moving the Asia Journalism Fellowship away from September so we will stop having surprise birthday parties for me. Here’s this year’s surprise, my favourite picture from September. I liked the cake my daughter Nicola made me too.
I never imagined that I would end up becoming friends for life with Dennis Jay Santos, a celebrated frontline disaster and conflict journalist from Mindanao, in the Philippines. Here we are, sad and happy to say goodbye at Changi airport. Near the end of the AJF 2017 programme, Dennis suffered a serious stroke and was warded at the Singapore General Hospital for three weeks, disabled on his left side.
As the weeks passed, I got to spend some time with Dennis and his family members, and I learnt to be grateful for the kindness of people I didn’t know, who responded when I asked for help. Some gave towards the hospital bill and ongoing care. A friend of a friend opened her home to Dennis’ partner Marj and sister Karina and said they could stay as long as they needed. Dennis displayed a remarkable determination to get well, and never lost his sense of humour, kidding with the nurses that they ought to add some beer to his drip. Two weeks after AJF 2017 ended, Dennis returned to Davao, and I have promised to visit him one day, soon I hope. “Tell me when you can walk to your front door to greet me and I’ll be there,” I promised Dennis.
My daughter Nicola is working on her doctorate in art history at St Andrews, Scotland, and her research covers early 20th Century artists in Indonesia and the Philippines. We spent a few days in Jakarta, only the second time in my life that I am there. Between tracking down artists and art and exploring the new Macan Museum of Contemporary Art we met my old friends Francis and Cassandra, I ran into a classmate John Vong and caught up with Asia Journalism Fellowship friends Damar Harsanto and Nurfahmi Budi. At dinner I misread the Rupiah zeros on the menu, and paid S$950 for a bottle of wine I thought looked reasonable at $95. Oops. It was good though.
That day in Manila I thought my phone was gone for good. I was there with Nicola for more of her research visits to galleries and museums and we took a taxi to the Philippines National Museum of Fine Arts. The taxi had let us out and left when I realised I’d left my phone behind. He was long gone, and we had no number to call. It looked hopeless, and I couldn’t even bring myself to look at Juan Luna’s famous Spoliarium because losing my phone was too upsetting.
Then Virgilio Sabillo showed up, big grin on his face and waving my phone at me. What were the chances? Really, what were the chances that a Manila cabby would find a phone on the back seat, make his way back to the place where he’d dropped off two visitors, and go in search of the owner? I thanked him, took wefies, praised the Lord, wrote an email to the mayor whose name appears on Virgilio’s licence.
The first time I visited Manila was 35 years ago after Benigno Aquino Jr was assassinated. Never went back. Now Manila will always be a sunshiny place because of this honest cabby, and for the crowd of friends I have there. Bless him. What a guy.
And there was time to return another day to take in Spoliarium too.
I’d say that was a very good year.