Death Houses

This is a concept I knew nothing about until reading a book recently set in Singapore before and during the Second World War. Death houses are places where the dying are sent to spend their final days, because the Chinese believe that dying in the family home will bring bad luck. The death house would consist of a funeral parlor which would be on the ground floor with accommodation for the dying above. In Singapore the death houses thrived as many Chinese immigrants were unable to return to their birthplaces to pass away. Instead they, friends or relatives, paid for a stall within the death house to spend their final days. In Singapore the death houses were based in Sago Lane in Chinatown, so named after the Sago flour production that took place there during the 19th century. During the early 20th century the area became known for its prostitution and death houses, an interesting combination!
The whole concept of death became an industry in itself. In the past the Emperor of China was buried with his wives, servants and concubines because of the belief that they could serve him in the next world. The more modern tradition is to buy paper items, money, houses, cars, clothing, wine and other luxury items. Burning these items and other death rituals are all part of preparing the soul for its journey to the next world where the soul will be judged and possibly punished. If a person is dying slowly and painfully it is believed they are being punished for past sins.
Some families would also pay professional mourners, who would attend the funeral and cry. The staff in the death house soon became able to identify them as they were more vocal in their grief. Some staff working in the death house also lived there themselves, always surrounded by the moans of the sick and the burning of joss sticks and other offerings. During the 1960’s the local newspaper reports of a thriving death house industry in Singapore. At this time relatively large objects were made to accompany the dying to the next world. Although generally less elaborate, often nowadays miniature, these paper offerings can still be found round the corner from Sago Lane on Banda Street. Such a fascinating insight into the beliefs of the Chinese community in Singapore!


Getting to Know Accra

My week in Accra is coming to an end and soon I’ll return to Singapore to pack up and close down our lives there. It’s been a tiring week, a lot of time has been spent in traffic with beggars at the window. The extremes of rich and poor are always hard to deal with, some of the nice large houses we saw were just round to corner from areas where people are living in shacks with no sanitation.
I think it is difficult to not be upset and shocked by this, instead you need to find a pragmatic approach, to help a small number of people in a small way.


 This will be a whole new adventure, understanding the people seems the best place to start. It may seem annoying that they are out to scam or make money but if this was en-grained into your way of life, as it it theirs, you won’t even notice. The apartment hunting has been a prime example, they show you all the crap stuff they can’t shift first in the hope you go for it. It got to the point where we didn’t even need to step out of the car to see it wasn’t suitable. To me this is a complete waste of time, and not just mine, the 3 agents and my driver, but I’m guessing this doesn’t bother them one little bit. I’m in their world on their time now.
This may well be the way of things, now that we have found somewhere we like there are a lot of checks to be preformed. Electrical checks, security checks, negotiations, and maybe 10 weeks later if every little box is ticked we might get the property! I also love the fact that our driver doesn’t just drive us around, he gets involved in negotiations and trying to make sure we  get the best deal.
It’s safe to say Accra is growing on me and already I’m getting used to the fact that driving anywhere takes time. We have found some nice places to eat and once inside the doors you could just as easily be in London’s west end, which admittedly messes with my head a little. I’m feeling ready for this new adventure for 2016, till then Accra!


Ghana Look & See

As obvious as it may seem I always try to remember that you can only see a place for the first time once. From then on you have already re-adjusted your expectations, recalibrating to your surroundings. I knew that Ghana would be completely different from Singapore but I’m still fighting frustration (and perhaps jetlag).
Accra is not unlike other developing cities, a sprawling urban mass with busy roads and non-existent pavements. People sell goods as you wait at the traffic lights, passing them in through the car window. You can buy anything from water to fruit, toilet paper, socks, snacks, windscreen wipers, mobile phone top ups, if they can balance it on their head to walk around then they will sell it.
Rubbish lies around, abandoned vehicles are left to rust and it seems to be perfectly acceptable for men to urinate right by the side of the road.  I’ve seen all this before in developing parts of South East Asia, I just haven’t seen it in a place I was planning to live.
My first day of apartment hunting was interesting, from their point of view it seemed to involve getting as many people as possible to do the job of one person, but I guess that keeps people employed. For most of the viewings I had 3-4 people following me around, how do I then tell them all that what they are showing me is pretty crap!
Today I got my driver to take me to a local mall and then the Botanical Gardens, they were a little rough and ready as you might expect. I was stopped shortly after entering the gardens, pretty much as soon as I took my camera out, and asked to pay. I refused, thinking it was a scam and so he asked me to leave. I called his bluff and headed for the gate, then once he was out of sight hung around for a bit photographing the dragonflies. The whole time I kept looking around expecting someone to show up and tell me off, not exactly relaxing! This whole experience made me realise that it would be hard to not grow pessimistic. Always suspicious that you might be getting ripped off or tricked. Something tells me this place might toughen us up!

Taipei – All good things must come to an end….

As my final day continued one thing I did find open was the Tapiei 101 observation deck, so up I went to take in the slightly hazy view of the city post Typhoon. There is something very pleasing about this 508 meter building, designed with sections like a giant flexing bamboo stalk. The worlds’s fastest elevator zips you up to the 89th floor in a mere 39 seconds. For those of you with an appreciation of Engineering the tower also hosts the world’s largest, heaviest and only publically visible Tuned Mass Damper. Hanging from cables and stretching between the 87th and 92nd floor, the 730-ton steel ball is the reason this building can withstand Typhoons and earthquakes. 

Inspired by viewing the city from up high I made my way to Yuanshan hill behind the Grand Hotel, easily accessible from Jiantan MRT station. From here a number of walking trails take you high up the hill side, past many temples and eventually to some viewpoints looking over the city. From here I stood looking back at Taipei 101 where I had been merely hours earlier, how easy and accessible this city is to cross. 
The following day as the clear blue skies returned and I headed to the airport it struck me by how much I had crammed into just five short days and at the same time how much more there was to see. I hope that one day I get the chance to return and enjoy this city and its friendly people once again. 

Taipei – Avoiding the Typhoon

On my final day as my friends flew home I had booked a tour at the National Palace Museum. This was a really exciting day for me as this museum is considered the world’s greatest repository of Chinese artefacts, once part of the emperor’s personal collection. Sadly the Typhoon had other ideas and all of Taipei seemed to close its doors as the storm approached. I was left no choice but to return to my hotel room and hunker down until the storm had passed. 

The following day I found my flight had been pushed back 24 hours and the storm seemed to have cleared so I headed down to the museum hopeful to see it after all. Disappointingly, it remained closed while they cleared up the storm debris, mostly foliage and trees which was strewn all over from the strong winds. Determined not to spend another day indoors now the storm had passed I devised my own walking tour. I went on to pass half a dozen museums that day, all closed but beautiful buildings none the less. Even the botanical gardens had closed their gates to the public while the clean-up was carried out. 

I later found myself in the Memorial Peace Park, built in honor of those who lost their lives on February 28th 1947, now referred to as the 2-28 incident. At this time Taiwan was returning to Chinese rule after 50 years of Japanese occupation and a riot broke out. Thousands of unarmed Taiwanese were killed and many more dragged from their homes and later disappeared. Across the road a memorial stands for those lost during the White Terror. This was a period between 1949 and 1987 when around 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned and thousands executed as part of their perceived or real connection with the KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party. Both parks were beautiful and offered some moments of reflection. 

Taipei – Exploring Beitou and the Old Walled City

Inspired by the fresh air we planned to return to Yangmingshan the following day but our plans were altered somewhat by an approaching Typhoon. Instead we donned our ponchos and headed out for a bit of exploring. In Beitou alone we were surprised to find some things to see and do. We enjoyed a couple of hours exploring the Hot Springs Museum and Ketagalan Cultural Centre where you can learn about the Aboriginal people of Taiwan. 
Afterwards we headed into the city, first to see the changing of the guard at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall which was built in the late 1970s. Chiang Kai-shek was a military man and an ally of Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the republic of China. For more than 40 years Chiang Kai-shek served as the leader of the Republic of China. The memorial hall, along with the National Theater, Concert Hall, gardens and even the MRT station are all stunning. Next we moved on to visit two more temples, the Baoan Temple and the nearby Confucius Temple. There are many, many temples in Taipei, mostly dedicated to the Three Teachings of China. This consists of Chinese Buddhism, Confusion and Taoism. These three philosophies were once very separate but over time evolved into their own unique mix, often elements of each are seen alongside each other in one temple. Christianity, Islam and many other religions are also practiced although I found much less evidence of their presence. 

Finally we finished our day with a visit to the Grand Hotel. This really is the best possible name for this hotel because it really is magnificent. Inspired by Beijing’s Forbidden City this huge hotel supports the largest Chinese roof in the world. You can have tea in the grand lobby but we found we didn’t need to and were left free to wonder round and soak in every bright colourful detail of this wonderful building. 

Taipei – Yangmingshan National Park

On returning to the city from Long Dong we headed to the hot springs area of Beitou. After filling up on street food we went for a soak in the local public baths where you can relax in the mineral rich hot spring water. Beitou is well positioned for access to the Yangmingshan National Park by local public bus. From the national park website frequently asked questions you can see a whole range of buses leaving from major MRT stations in the city. The park has several well marked hiking trails taking you up high for views down on Taipei, as well as shorter trails for spotting wildlife. We saw some road cyclists enjoying the mountain air as the bus climbed up the road towards the national park visitor centre. You would really need to love hills to want to cycle there!  

The park has quite unique volcanic geology and natural hot springs and furmaroles can be seen in several places. We had planned to hike up Mt Qixing but first we went to check out Xiaoyoukeng near the base of the path on the northwest foothill. This is a ‘collapsed terrain’ horseshoe shaped area releasing steam and on a clear day you should be able to see some sulphur crystals. We then headed up Mt Qixing which has many stairs up the mountainside through the high grass. Unfortunately the clear sky from the day before had been replaced with a swirling cloud and so the view points along the way were somewhat useless. On a clear day the top, at 1120m, would have offered us wonderful views down on the city and across the national park. I still really enjoyed the hike however, the cloud was atmospheric and the air cool and refreshing, a lovely break from the heat and humidity.  

 We finished our day back in the city, taking in the sights, smells and tastes of Shillin night market.

 Yangmingshan National Park (Check the FAQs for information on getting there by bus):