Art of Sofia

Sofia Cole - her signature self portrait
Behind her sweet smile and twinkling eyes, Sofia Cole, 51, is a fighter.  That’s because 15 years ago, she was told that she had only 3 more days to live and advised to say Goodbye to her family.  She was devastated when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma because her children, Stefan, Sasha and Sebastian, were then aged 6, 4 and 18 months old.  Her first thought was, “I can’t die – I have so much to do!” as she grappled with how she should break the news to her husband and family. 

Her B-cell lymphoma was the size of a grapefruit and inoperable as it was wrapped around her heart.  She went through chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments and fought the battle with tenacity as the drugs ravaged her and her family was traumatised by the ordeal. “My life is defined as “Before cancer” and “After cancer”,” said Cole, whose illness went into remission for about 5 years before she started experiencing black-outs with convulsions. 

Sofia Cole with portraits of her sons, Stefan [Right]
and Sebastian [Left]
For her own safety, she had to give up her driving license and one day when she collapsed in the street, the doctor suspected that she had a late onset of epilepsy.  In hospital, the medication was making her heart race and they discovered that her heart was failing.  Since Cole was fitted with a pacemaker, she is able to enjoy a better quality of life and continues to have regular health checks.  Born in Essex, Cole, who once worked in London and lived in Devon, England, now makes Johor Baru her home. 

Personal Struggles

As an artist, Cole had a long road to recovery after her illness because due to the numbness in her fingers, she could not draw fine pen illustrations.  She struggled on with sheer determination and it was about 12 months later before she was satisfied with her drawings.  So the successful completion of each portrait was indeed, a sweet achievement for her.

Sofia's daughter, Sasha, portrayed as
Alice in Wonderland surrounded by a
halo of icons from Alice's adventures
“If I’m not reading, I’m drawing,” said Cole as she showed off her collection of classics, mainly by Jane Austen as well as prequels and sequels to Pride and Prejudice and confessed that she is a Jane Austen buff.  Being dyslexic, she desperately wanted to read but could not until she was 11 years old.  So once she started reading, she could not put the books down and is now an avid reader and reviewer of Jane Austen classics. 

When their family lived in Dartmoor, Devon, Cole was involved with the Chagford Filmmaking Group, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of English fairytales in films.  Cole’s children are her inspiration and while they joined the casts to act in various films on folklore, she focused on helping to design and make costumes and dress up mythical characters like fairies, water nymphs, flowers and giants.  These colourful characters were later immortalized in her paintings designed in portraits crowned by a halo filled with interesting icons, often in intricate decoupage.



Itchy feet

Devon is one of the wettest parts of England and Cole depended on all sorts of medication to stay free from frequent coughs and colds.  As a cancer survivor, she was ready for a radical change, and after a family meeting, they decided that the time was ripe to go on a Round-the-World trip.  But before they left, Cole had to take her daughter to see Venice because it was a special place to her and was where she had honeymooned.

Sofia painted this family portrait from a photo
In November 2008, armed with one suitcase each, Cole, her husband and children headed for their first stop, Pattaya, Thailand, to join Stefan who was taking a diving course there, but due to protests in Bangkok, the airports were closed.  So they landed in Singapore and had an adventure travelling by coach via Johor to Penang, en route to Hat Yai and finally arrived in Pattaya for Christmas.  

Cole and family took a slow return trip through the peninsula with stops in Pangkor, Malacca, Tioman, Kuala Lumpur and Johor through to Singapore before leaving for Australia.  After 3 months in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane as well as diving in the Great Barrier Reef, the family journeyed onward to New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the United States of America.

Portrait of an Indian bride who caught
Sofia's eye
While her children enjoyed all the extreme sports in New Zealand, the cooler temperature and dampness was affecting Cole and making her feel unwell.  After celebrating Sasha’s 18th birthday in Las Vegas, the family had to make some decisions as they were already on the final leg of their trip.  When it came down to the final word, Cole told her family, “I don’t want to go back to England,” and added, “Let’s go back to Malaysia.”

Her husband was expecting her to say, Malacca, but she decided on Johor because she felt that Johor Baru has the best of everything. 

The city is situated close to Singapore and they can enjoy visiting the islands off Mersing for diving and snorkeling.  “I feel better than I have in years,” declared the affable Cole surrounded by her paintings in her 6th floor apartment that commands a panoramic view of the Johor Straits.


Sofia Art

With more time to herself now, Cole can concentrate on her art – portrait painting and creating wearable art which she calls, “danglies” that feature characters from English classics.  These vintage looking danglies are designed in themes like Beatrix Potter, Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland and Pride and Prejudice. 

Wearable art or "danglies" designed
with classic English themes like
Mary Poppins, featuring a spoonful
of sugar, Beatrix Potter and English Tea
“It’s someone’s childhood caught in bits of glass,” said Cole about the tiny paintings of the characters fitted into frames and linked into danglies.  One of these truly unique creations is the pretty Mary Poppins dangly that even had a tiny teaspoon framed with several crystals for a 3-D effect portrayal of “a spoonful of sugar” that helps the medicine go down!

Cole is inspired by the people she meets and if a person or picture caught her attention, she will not hesitate to approach them to ask if she could draw him or her.  One of her favourite portraits rendered in a Black & White pen illustration is 5-year old “Maslinda’s boy” a cheeky boy whom she met in a café close to her apartment. 

Just before Hari Raya, Cole’s cleaning lady approached her with a photo of her mother and mother-in-law and asked Cole to paint a portrait of them so that she could present it as a Hari Raya gift.  Cole also paints portraits in mixed media and in oil paints besides painting portraits from photos. 




Painting produced from a photo of her cleaning lady's mother and
mother-in-law that was presented to them at a Hari Raya gift

Sofia Cole at her first exhibition here, at the recent 9th JB Arts Festival
Sofia's passion for Jane Austen classics is translated into wearable art that
features the suave Mr Darcy [Right] and another dangly designed with a painting
of her daughter, Sasha, [Left] when she was going through her red hair phase!
The public had a glimpse of Cole’s creations at her first exhibition in Johor Baru, billed “My Passion For Portraits” held during the recent 9th Johor Baru Arts Festival.  For more info and to commission art work, visit: www.artofsofia.blogspot.com and for her book reviews, visit: www.janeaustenprequelsandsequels.com

A version of this article was published in The New Sunday Times, Sunday Life & Times on 28 October 2012

Priceless Singapore

Host, Dominic Lau, [L to R] with Matthew Driver,
Sophia Ng and Julienne Loh at the Press Conference
Imagine the thrill of gaining exclusive access to the city’s finest restaurants and bars, the hottest designers and retail outlets, special suites at the best hotels, the most exciting attractions in town and red carpet entertainment experiences.  In seeking to meet the passion points of cardholders and reward them for choosing to use MasterCard, cardholders in the Priceless Singapore programme will be surprised and delighted with exclusive experiences under the iconic Priceless brand that celebrates Priceless moments and brings Priceless experiences to life.



Mastercard Priceless Singapore offers special deals for
VIP Tours of Universal Studios Singapore - one of South
East Asia's biggest attractions
On Oct 12, Singapore became the first city in South East Asia to launch the MasterCard Priceless Cities programme, a global programme for all MasterCard credit, debit and prepaid cardholders to enjoy privileges, priority access, sneak peeks and exclusive deals in dining, entertainment, shopping, travel, and to the city’s special events.  Singapore joins New York, London, Toronto, Chicago, Beijing and Sydney as another destination in the MasterCard Priceless Cities programme.  MasterCard Worldwide cardholders are eligible for additional VIP experiences.  Now, discerning and well-travelled cardholders can start enjoying these special deals by registering at www.pricelesssingapore.com and planning their own priceless itinerary to explore Singapore.

Press Conference

At the Priceless Singapore Press Conference, media representatives from Asian nations like Thailand, Vietnam, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, heard Matthew Driver, president, South East Asia MasterCard Worldwide, explain: “In Singapore, our biggest obsession is food and shopping is our national pastime.  Singapore is an Asian hub with great attractions, world-class entertainment, arts and culture events – a destination of choice for well-heeled travellers from the region.” 

“Consumers today are well-travelled and discerning.  They seek exclusive offers and curated experiences that cater to their specific interests and needs,” said Sophia Ng, Singapore Tourism Board’s Assistant Chief Executive for Marketing.  “We are privileged that MasterCard has selected Singapore as the first city in South East Asia for their iconic Priceless Cities campaign and believe that Priceless Singapore will resonate well with both Singapore residents and international visitors,” she added.

Julienne Loh, vice president and country manager, MasterCard Worldwide said, “Priceless Singapore is MasterCard’s way of giving cardholders a reason to let loose a little, break out of their routine – to forget about time every once in a while – and to indulge themselves in their own pursuits.” 

Gala Event

Get front-row experience as you dine at the Tippling Club
That evening, guests at the Priceless Singapore Gala Event walked the red carpet into the event area – designed inside Singapore’s brand new Marina Bay Cruise Centre – for a sneak peek into the perks that MasterCard holders can enjoy in the Priceless Singapore programme.  The gala evening turned out to be a party of friends who knew how to enjoy the finer things in life.

Programme partners, The Singapore Repertory Theatre, had a stage set up with several characters from Shakespeare plays, reenacting scenes from ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ performances like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and Twelfth Night.  The MasterCard Priceless Singapore platform amplifies Singapore’s appeal as a destination on the world map for a fusion of arts, music and literature.  Guests had a taste of these theatrical performances as they anticipated enjoying more priceless theatre moments in the Priceless Singapore programme.

As a VIP guest of Universal Studios Singapore, you get
Express entry to Lights Camera Action!
Uniformed staff plied guests with drinks and food catered by Ritz Carlton Singapore and behind a curtained section, guests had a sampling of delicious designer artisan spa chocolates and a quickie shoulder massage treatment with Adeva Spa therapists.  A creative percussion performance by the Urban Drum Crew kicked off the evening’s programme and in a random draw, MasterCard Priceless Singapore rewarded several lucky people with exclusive prizes like a VIP trip to the UK for an English Premier League football match and a private dining experience for the winner and thirteen friends at the luxurious Gaggenau Experience Centre, prepared by some of Singapore’s most celebrated chefs. 

In the high point of the Gala Event, MasterCard surprised and delighted guests with a priceless experience in an exclusive appearance of award-winning English soul and R&B singer-songwriter – Seal.  As the screen next to the stage showed “live” scenes of Seal’s entry into the event hall, his band (already on stage!) struck up the music and security personnel helped to part the surging crowd as Seal walked in singing!  This kicked off 45 solid minutes of special Seal moments where he entertained and enthralled the appreciative audience with his distinctive brand of music!

Seal entertained and enthralled the audience with his
distinctive brand of music at the Gala event
Seal presented an intimate showcase of his unique repertoire and like a true professional, worked the audience with his lively banter.  He belted out familiar favourites like, Crazy and of course, Kiss from a Rose from the Batman Forever soundtrack.  He connected easily with the enthusiastic audience and when he finished his final song, the feeling was so pricelessly euphoric that everyone was reluctant to see him go. 

This was just a glimpse of how MasterCard would go out of their way to ensure that cardholders will have truly priceless experiences.  Check out more exclusive experiences available to MasterCard cardholders at www.pricelesssingapore.com and register to enjoy special admission, behind-the-scene access and exclusive privileges for dining, entertainment, shopping, travel and spectacular events in the Priceless Singapore programme.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 25 October 2012

Reading Culture

My eclectic taste in books run from Beano to Robert
James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County
Cultivating a reading culture

Since I was a child, I observed my dad reading the daily newspapers and his subscriptions of Life magazine and Reader’s Digest.   At first, I started looking at the pictures and enjoyed the full-colour quality prints in Life and gradually progressed to reading the shortest columns in Reader’s Digest like Laughter – the Best Medicine and Humour in Uniform.  I also enjoyed trying to improve my vocabulary by taking the challenge in the Word Power page.    

Dad could spend his leisure hours quietly reading and I realised that much pleasure can be derived from it.  Close to my birthday in 1969, we had a family shopping trip and in a book store, dad said I could pick a book of my choice as his gift.  And from the countless books in the store, I zeroed in on a glossy hardcover ‘bumper’ issue of the Beano Annual!



Wall-to-wall second-hand books for sale
in Chowrasta Market, Penang
I was thrilled to have a book of my own but letting mum wrap it up – only to be opened on my birthday – put quite a damper on my excitement.  It may not have been intellectual or inspirational but at that time, the Beano was my heart’s desire.  When I finally tore off the wrapping paper on my birthday, I read and re-read the adventures and antics of well-loved characters like the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minne the Minx, Biffo the Bear, Billy Whizz, Roger Dodger and Gnasher, and Lord Snooty, among others.

Long before there were animated TV cartoon characters, my imagination helped me understand the sequence of the story as I read the dialogue bubbles next to illustrations in the comic strips.  They may only be cartoon characters but I could relate to them and easily identified with their pains and perils.  Till today, I can fondly remember weird and nerdy characters among the Bash Street Kids like Spotty, Fatty, Smiffy, Cuthbert and especially, Plug!



Snow White & Rose Red was the first fairytale storybook I received for Christmas from Auntie Annie and since then I started reading books with fewer pictures.  As my sisters were already into reading Enid Blyton books – Secret Seven, Five Find-outers’ mysteries, Famous Five and the Malory Towers school series – I joined them in devouring book after book during the holidays.  Colourful characters like the bumbling Mr Goon and his nemesis, Frederick Algernon “Fatty” Trotteville – a master of disguise, and spoilt Gwendoline and her indulgent mother, became juicy topics our of conversation.

In secondary school, I was introduced to the Bard in Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare – a simplified version of William Shakespeare’s plays and I went on to study books like Hamlet, E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  As I enjoyed the serious side of Literary Appreciation, I cannot forget the thrill of meeting the single, rich and suave Mr Darcy!

Johor Baru's iconic Bombay Book Centre closed down
shortly after its move to Skudai
When reading was for passing exams, it became rather tedious but I still enjoyed the stories and often could not wait for the next lesson but read ahead to find out, for instance, what happened next with Pip, proud Estella and cranky old Miss Havisham.  At this time, I remember how avid readers in our class used to exchange stacks of well-thumbed romance paperbacks even though it was strictly prohibited in school.  As a late-starter, I had yet to discover the genre of Mills & Boon books but I knew that they were super un-put-down-able because even the prefects were reading them in class – behind their open Geography books! 


While my eldest sister was working, she enjoyed a healthy diet of Women’s Weekly Library romances, mostly exchanged from the second-hand book dealer located at No. 6 Jalan Trus.  The Bombay Book Centre was filled with dusty used books and was a popular destination not only for leisure readers but also students and professionals for their stock of rare reference books.  This iconic shop in the heart of old JB, has close to a 100-year old history but after its relocation to Skudai, the business did not stay open for long.

The new Children's Collection section in the Johor
Baru Public Library at Jalan Yahya Awal
My friend Gerard confessed that his passion for Han Suyin’s work was reignited recently but was disappointed that he could not find any good second-hand book stores in JB for his search of her classics.  It made us wonder if this was an indication that people in JB do not have a healthy reading habit.  So I pointed him to my pre-loved books havens in Chowrasta Market, Penang and Bras Basah, Singapore, as well as in Malacca and Ipoh, where they are stocked wall-to-wall with second-hand books!

Meanwhile my dad and I have been active members with JB’s two public libraries – borrowing books, first from the one at Jalan Datin Halimah and now from the other at Jalan Yahya Awal.  It is interesting that the latter recently added a spanking new section, filled with books for young readers, that was officially launched by the Johor Menteri Besar Dato’ Abdul Ghani Othman on 18 October.  This augurs well for JB’s reading public and I hope parents will make full use of this facility to inculcate a reading habit because reading will fire their children’s imagination and open new horizons that will enrich their lives.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 22 October 2012

Cool Treats

A variety of artisan Italian gelato and sorbet at Gelatij Cafe
Living his ice-cream dream

“If I never start, I will never start,” was the thought that urged S. Aanan Thon, better known as Brian, to pursue his passion in creating his dream ice-cream.  He left a career with the Singapore Air Force after 12 years and went into Human Resource management for the next 10 years but his heart was still on making his own brand, tasty and affordable, Italian ice-cream.  So in 2009 he went for a formal training course with a Gelato Making School in Sicily, Italy to learn the finer points of making quality gelato.


A customer being personally served by Gelatij founder
and proprietor, S. Aanan Thon aka Brian
“I explored the Italian countryside to sample as many types of gelato as I could find,” said Brian as he recalled the varieties of flavours that he tasted.  And if any tasted agreeable, he went back for a repeat tasting so as to remember that flavour.  So since 2010 he started to live his dream, selling his traditional hand-stirred gelato in Singapore. 

Now artisan Italian gelato and sorbet are being enjoyed by a regular clientele of discerning customers at Gelatij Café that opened in Johor Baru in February.  Brian said the abundance of fresh fruit available locally helped him to decide to bring his art of ice-cream making and open an outlet here. 

A family of regulars give Gelatij cool treats the thumbs up!
By using local fruits and all natural ingredients, he is able to keep prices low and is proud that Gelatij Café guarantees the lowest prices in Malaysia and Singapore.

“Gelatij’s products are affordable and suitable for everyone,” said Brian because his gelato is made with a dairy base and natural fruit ingredients while the sorbet is created from local fresh fruits without any milk.  Customers can be assured that no artificial flavouring, colouring, additives, preservatives or alcohol are added.  


“There are also flavour choices that are suitable for vegetarians and diabetics,” he added confidently.

Customers are invited to add their comments to the wall!
First-timers at Gelatij Café may be curious about the scrawls on one of the walls but look closer and you will read comments that customers wrote after they have tasted the cool treats.  Brian welcomes feedback on his products and invites customers to leave their signatures and words on the wall.  He has even collected comments from customers from as far as Canada and Switzerland who happened to be in his neighbourhood, so don’t be surprised if you see customers searching for a spot to add their comments on the wall!

Gelato and sorbet are served either in cones or in 80-gram cups but you can be assured that Brian is “generous with his scoop.”  To encourage young people to enjoy the refreshing and affordable treat, students wearing school uniforms will get a RM1.00 discount on each cup.  “Then I’m doing justice to my passion!” laughed Brian.

Brian had a memorable time with Dolph Lundgren at Gelatij
Batches of gelati and sorbet are made fresh regularly so expect new flavour creations from time to time.  Some of the interesting flavours to savour at Gelatij include Chocolate Chillie, Coconut & Gula Melaka, Guava & Assam, Celery and Banana Mint.  Light snacks like rojak drizzled with peanut sauce, is in the menu at Gelatij.

One of the most memorable moments Brian had in Gelatij was that fine day in June when actor, Dolph Lundgren of Universal Soldier fame, dropped by at the café and enjoyed a cool treat.  The star was nearby for location shooting.

Gelatij Café is located at No. 8 Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, Susur 1/1, 80000 Johor Baru.  Tel: 013 – 670 8878.  For more info, visit website: www.Gelatij.com

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 22 October 2012

Wushu Fusion Show

The team from SJK (C) Foon Yew 1 performed in
eye-catching costumes
Billed as the biggest wushu event of the year, “Wushu Fusion” lived up to its size with 1300 people in the audience who watched 10 wushu performing groups of 400 junior wushu artistes.  When the doors to the auditorium of SJK(C) Foon Yew 5 were opened, the audience was ushered to their seats to enjoy 90 minutes of non-stop martial arts and contemporary dance, choreographed in interesting scenarios.  Using minimal props, clever lighting, special soundtracks and expressive choreography, every performance told its tale without any dialogue.


The audience waiting to enter the hall for an evening of
Wushu Fusion
“Wushu Fusion” was organized by Lee Wushu Arts Theatre and Lee Wushu Arts Workshop in collaboration with the Johor State Department of Education and the Wushu Federation of Johor and performed on Sept 29.  The evening’s showcase included teams from primary schools like SJK (C) Foon Yew 1, Foon Yew 4, Foon Yew 5, SJK (C) Kempas, SJK (C) Tampoi, SJK (C) Pei Hwa, and Apprentice Team 1 and Team 2 of Lee Wushu Arts Theatre as well as the class from Lee Wushu Arts Workshop.  A guest appearance by young silat exponents, Free Run JB, who gave an impressive and energetic martial arts performance, reflected the true spirit of “Wushu Fusion.”

Members of one of the Lee Wushu Art Theatre's
apprentice team frozen in a tableau
“The experience from this performance will help to transform them into real wushu artistes,” said Lee Swee Seng, Artistic Director and Choreographer of Lee Wushu Arts Theatre, about the junior wushu artistes, adding that many of them were performing to a public audience for the very first time. 

In recent years, Lee Wushu has established a reputation, both locally and abroad, for presenting brilliant shows of artistry in a creative blend of wushu martial arts with modern dance.  His confidence in the youngsters proved right when they impressed the audience with performances in a mix of martial arts with drama, dance and even comedy.

A comical scene from the performance by
SJK (C) Foon Yew 5
In 1998 Lee founded Lee Wushu Arts Theatre to promote wushu cultural activities and to preserve the tradition of this martial art.  Since 2001, Lee has presented the visual and physical aesthetics of wushu in several shows like Wushu and Dance, Wushu and Dance United and The King’s Sword.  For the 7th Johor Baru Arts Festival in 2010, Lee directed a powerful drama entitled, “Farewell, My Concubine: The Movement of the Martyr” and “Wushu Madness,” a dance drama in contemporary dance mixed with wushu martial arts that portrayed the insanity of our daily rat race, for the 8th JB Arts Fest in 2011. 


The finale was a spectacular performance by members of
the Lee Wushu Arts Theatre Team

Lee Wushu has since garnered wide experience through highly acclaimed performances at the Georgetown Arts Festival in Penang and the International Youth Arts Festival in London.  Lee however, is deeply committed to cultivating interest and commitment to the art among young people.  In 2002, 2004 and 2006, Lee Wushu jointly organised Wushu Camps in cooperation with Sin Chew Jit Poh, Nanyang Siang Pau and the Johor Wushu Association respectively, to generate greater interest in wushu among the participants.

Artistic Director Lee Swee Seng [3rd from Left] and choreographers
[fromLeft] Cheong Kee Qing, Wong Wen Hao, Ter Wei Lun,
Ter Chen Fong and Kok Wai Chun, taking a bow with the
performers at the close of the show
The presentation of “Wushu Fusion” was another avenue that Lee used to cultivate fresh talent in his unique style of wushu performing arts.  The performances kicked off with more experienced wushu artistes from the Lee Wushu Arts Theatre Apprentices Teams followed by a programme of performances by school teams and guest artistes before closing with artistes from the Lee Wushu Arts Theatre Team. 


Every performance demanded a deep commitment for training and discipline and Lee was determined to help these youths develop a deeper passion for wushu as a performing art and become a catalyst in elevating and preserving this culture heritage in Johor Baru.  From the keen response on the part of the performers and the support from the audience, Lee believes that the seeds that were planted will eventually reap a harvest.  For more info on Lee Wushu Arts Theatre, visit website: www.wushuart.com

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 22 October 2012

Truly Priceless!

 
The moment I stepped out from my car at the front porch of the Hard Rock Hotel, Sentosa, I was greeted by name.  I turned to the young lady who was there expecting my arrival and introduced herself as Cindy, a consultant with the PR agency, working with MasterCard Worldwide, the hosts of the media visit for Priceless Singapore.  After a very smooth and speedy check-in, she directed me to the bank of elevators that should take me to my room for a rest before the start of the day’s itinerary. 

I have reviewed the itinerary and was looking forward to a sneak peek into the Priceless moments that MasterCard holders can expect to experience and enjoy with Priceless Singapore.  There was a shopping trip to Reebonz Space, dinner at The Tippling Club – helmed by top international chef Ryan Clift, a Chinese gourmet lunch created by chef Sam Leong and chef Mike Tan at Forest, Equarius Hotel, and a VIP tour of Universal Studios Singapore – one of South East Asia’s biggest tourist attractions. 


And while the hosts wanted the media to experience a luxurious stay with a bit of a rock edge at the Hard Rock Hotel, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that this trip was going to culminate with such an exciting experience!

As I followed the signs to the Guest Lifts and rounded the corner, I was welcomed by James “I feel good!” Brown and the incomparable King – Elvis Presley!  Their full-height posters graced one wall while the other wall had portraits of The Boss – Bruce Springsteen among others and a display with an outfit worn by Elvis in his movie, Speedway.  I couldn’t help smiling as I feasted my eyes on these artifacts until the elevator “dinged” its arrival.


It was a short ride to my floor and when the doors slid open, I was greeted by the Fab Four – Paul, George, John and Ringo – collectively known as The Beatles!  My smile widened as I paused to look at a showcase with a display of a pair of pinstriped pants that belonged to John Lennon and a collection of drum sticks that Ringo Starr used at concerts in 1964!  Looking at these items just brought back a flood of fond memories of my very unforgettable visit to The Beatles Museum in Liverpool.


By this time, I was bracing myself for who else I may see inside my room.  The Front Office staff said that at the moment, there was no room available with a King size bed so I accepted the twin-bedded room, agreeing to let the Housekeeping staff come “join” the two super-single beds for me to enjoy a Mega size bed! 

I entered my room and the Housekeeper was not there yet but I was delighted to see that I was going to share the room with Jimi Hendrix!


As a habit when I first enter a room, I inspected the facilities and was pleased to see that the dressing area was properly lighted – with bulbs framing the mirror ala Hollywood style – that not only gave sufficient light but also made me feel like a star!  I found the remote control to switch on the TV and the screen came alive with the Resorts World promo video.  It was as if I was not welcomed enough thus far because I suddenly caught sight of my name on the TV screen!  I thought this welcome was indeed personalised enough when I read the screen with message: “Welcome Ms Loh, Peggy!”


A red carpet welcome into the Gala Event
This was just the start of my Priceless Singapore experience, the tip of the proverbial iceberg because in the next two days, I had an exciting taste of what MasterCard cardholders can look forward to experience in the programme. 

On 12 October, Singapore became the first city in South East Asia to launch the MasterCard Priceless Cities programme, a global programme for all MasterCard credit, debit and prepaid cardholders.  These discerning and well-travelled consumers can gain access to the city’s finest restaurants and bars, the hottest designers and retail outlets, exclusive suites at the best hotels, the most exciting attractions in town and red carpet entertainment experiences.  MasterCard Worldwide cardholders are also eligible for additional VIP experiences. 

Cardholders should register at www.pricelesssingapore.com to start enjoying these special access deals, perks and privileges.



Seal in Singapore for
Priceless Singapore Gala Event
This info was shared at the Priceless Singapore Press Conference before we were transferred to the Marina Bay Cruise Centre for the Priceless Singapore Gala Event.  At the close of the Press Conference, the host Dominic Lau couldn’t resist dropping some strong hints of what we can expect to see later at the Gala Event.  As a short video clip was screened with the star [specially flown in for this event!] speaking to people on the streets of Singapore, I could not suppress a surge of anticipation to see him “live” because I already guessed it right – last night!

Over dinner last night I was given a broad hint that there will be a pleasant surprise at the Gala Event and I was told, “But my lips are sealed…”  I guessed it was a musician but the next clue gave the game away because the moment I heard that he is renowned for the soundtrack for the Batman Forever movie, I got it!  Wow!  

I have long been a fan of the distinctive voice of this award-winning English soul and R&B singer-songwriter and I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that he was really going to be here…

Later as I walked the red carpet into the event area – designed inside the brand new Marina Bay Cruise Centre – I was ready for a peek into the perks that MasterCard holders can have access to in the Priceless Singapore programme – and to see Seal in the flesh!  

I was with the three witches from Shakespeare's MacBeth!
The Singapore Repertory Theatre had a stage set up in one section of the event area with several characters from various Shakespeare plays, reenacting scenes from ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and Twelfth Night.  

Uniformed staff plied guests with drinks and food catered by Ritz Carlton Singapore and behind a curtained section, guests had a sampling of designer artisan spa chocolates and a skillful quickie shoulder massage treat. 


A creative percussion performance by the Urban Drum Crew kicked off the evening’s programme and MasterCard launched Priceless Singapore with a random draw that rewarded several lucky people with a VIP trip to the UK to watch a football match and an exclusive dining experience for the winner and thirteen friends at The Tippling Club.  The gala evening turned out to be a party of friends who knew how to enjoy the finer things in life.  After the food and drinks and a vocal performance by Vanessa Fernandez, I knew that the high point of the evening was near. 


Guests recording Seal as he entered the event hall
I thought that if MasterCard was seeking to meet the passion points of cardholders and reward them for choosing to use MasterCard, they did a great job in showcasing some of the attractions that are available exclusively to cardholders.

The moment I saw the short video clip of Seal that was earlier screened at the Press Conference, I did not hesitate but headed directly to the front of the stage as the screen changed to show “live” scenes of Seal’s entry into the event hall.  While his band (already on stage!) struck up the music, security personnel helped to part the surging crowd as Seal walked in singing!

It felt like Seal was only singing to me!
This kicked off 45 solid minutes of special Seal moments where he entertained and enthralled the appreciative audience with his distinctive brand of music.  From my front row position, I saw how he sang effortlessly and flawlessly.  With the sweltering heat – from his energetic performance and our warm reception – he had to pause between songs to mop his perspiration and refresh with sips of water. 

Seal gave us an intimate showcase of his unique repertoire and like a true professional, worked the audience with his lively banter.  He belted out familiar favourites like, Crazy and of course, Kiss from a Rose from the Batman Forever soundtrack and when he did a cover of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, his soulful rendition was so beautiful that for a moment, it felt like he was only singing to me!








Seal - in the flesh - at the Priceless Singapore
Gala Event on 12 October 2012
He connected easily with the audience and when he finished his final song, everyone was at an emotional high and so hyped up that it was not easy to see him go.  I must confess that I was on the brink of tears and it took conscious effort to pull myself together before I melted into a puddle on the floor! 

As soon as Seal left, I found a seat and vaguely remembered that the serving staff continued offering me drinks and snacks but I politely declined.  Because after Seal, I needed nothing else!  Back in my room at the Hard Rock Hotel that night, I not only went to bed with Jimi Hendrix watching me but I also had Seal on my mind.  Thanks to MasterCard, I had a truly priceless experience – one that I would treasure for a long, long time.  

Before falling asleep and drifting into dreams filled with spectacular moments with Seal, I made a mental note to register at www.pricelesssingapore.com and to check out those exclusive experiences and deals that MasterCard cardholders can look forward to enjoy. 

/pl

Countryside Cuisine

Khottu Paratta, diced paratta with a side of sambar and raita
Since opening its doors in September 2007, Village Briyani Café has been keeping a loyal clientele satisfied with its unique range of beautiful briyani and menu of authentic North Indian food.  Five years on, Pn Shafina Abdul Hamid decided to expand the menu and introduce the joys of eating South Indian specialties in a Tiffin menu. 

To please a discerning clientele who knows how to differentiate between North and South Indian cuisine, she set up Village Countryside Cuisine, just a stone’s throw away from Village Briyani Café. 


Chefs from India serve a delectable range of Tiffin meals like [Left to Right] Khottu Paratta, Keerai Vadai,
Kulipaniyaaram, Aapam, traditional Idli, curry leaf Idli and Poori sets at Village Countryside Cuisine

The word, “Tiffin” has its origins in British India where the Indians have a tradition of taking an afternoon snack, a meal similar to English afternoon tea.  In South India, the word is used for between-meal snacks of breads like dosai and idli and often refers to packed lunches that are delivered to working men or school children.  These packed tiffin lunches were traditionally sent by tiffin-wallahs who are skilled in delivering thousands of tiffin meals daily.

Taste six different flavours in a Malayalee
vegetarian thali meal
“The Tiffin meal is usually enjoyed between 5pm to 7pm,” said Shafina as a guideline for the typically Indian tradition of savouring an afternoon snack.  The Tiffin menu with popular meals like Khottu Paratta, Keerai Vadai, Kulipaniyaaram, Aapam, traditional rice Idli, curry leaf Idli and Poori are served in sets with a side of gravy and condiments.  “These are also available for lunch and dinner or you can order a mixed meal that comes with rice and breads,” she said reassuringly, as there is no time limit for serving Tiffin.

While most diners may be familiar with tiffin favourites like paratta, vadai and idli, this is where you should discover something different in Kulipaniyaaram, Aapam and the Village’s version of Khottu Paratta.  Try Aapam, a light rice pancake with a doughy centre served with a side of fresh milk that has a light ginger flavour and sambar, a vegetable stew.  The word, Kulipaniyaaram may be a mouthful but just order, Kuli in short, and you can sink your teeth into cute little tasty treats that can be described as a cross between a dosai and idli – crispy on the outside and soft on the inside – served with sambar and two varieties of chutney.

Firey hot Crab Rasam, pepper soup
If paratta is your favourite Indian bread, why not try Khottu Paratta, diced and flavoured paratta mixed with egg, chillies and masala spices?  After placing your order, do not be alarmed when you hear knocking sounds coming from the kitchen because the chefs take the task of dicing your paratta, very seriously.   A spicy serving comes in a generous portion with a side of sambar and a soothing raita yogurt dip.

But if you must have rice, Countryside Cuisine has a menu of Rice of the Day like Thenga Pal Rice (coconut milk rice) that can be eaten with vegetarian and non-vegetarian ala carte items and specials like Village Fish Head Curry, Kharu Vahdu, salted fish curry and a variety of Rasam or South Indian soup. 

Signature Village mutton briyani rice set
They also serve a delicious vegetarian Malayalee meal on a thali, a stainless steel tray topped with 8 little stainless steel bowls for you to savour 6 different flavours – bitter, sweet, sour, bitter-sweet, spicy and salty – in one meal.  Fans of Village briyani rice will be happy to know that they can also enjoy their choice of favourite briyani here.

Complete your meal with traditional Indian desserts like Chow Chow Halwa made from grated Siamese gourd or Pineapple Kesari, a semolina dessert with pineapple flavour.  Wash it down with your pick of a hot drink like Masala Tea or Indian coffee made with fresh milk.  The milky coffee is served in a traditional metal tumbler set within a dabarah or tiny metal pot so you can enjoy the whole experience of pouring the drink into the dabarah and back into the tumbler in huge arcs to cool it and create a head of froth in the teh tarik tradition!

End sweetly with a choice of typically South Indian desserts like
Chow Chow Halwa made from Siamese gourd [Left] and Pineapple Kaseri
This is the way to cool your South Indian coffee...
Village Countryside Cuisine is a Halal restaurant located at No.25, Susur 1/1 Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, close to Danga City Mall.  Open daily from 11.00am to 3.00pm and from 5.00pm to 10.00pm.  For reservations and catering, Tel: 607 – 222 1370.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 10 October 2012