Friday 30 June 2017

Walking Tours of San Francisco

I stayed in San Francisco as a guest of and San Francisco Travel, and paid my own airfare to the USA.

When I visited San Francisco in 2015,  I joined some great (and quirky) tours, and researched several others. Here's a list for you to consider the next time you're heading to SF...

North Beach Underground. Covering the Kerouac trail in the neighbourhood most closely associated with the Beat Poets. The tour visits the Beat Museum but also expands to take in the district's rough-and tumble history, from the 19th century Sydney Ducks gang to the illicit pleasures of the Prohibition era. See [Note: I wrote an article about this tour for The Age.]

Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine. Fun tour of memorable and unusual moments in the city's history, led by a guide impersonating one of its greatest eccentrics. See

Mural Tour. Learn about the murals of the Mission district covering six blocks from Balmy Alley, in the company of an experienced muralist. See

Chinatown Alleyway Tour. Walk through the back streets of this vibrant neighbourhood, hearing about the trials and triumphs of the city’s Chinese community. See

Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour. Set the controls for the 1960s in this tour of the hippie-era hub, epicentre of the Summer of Love. See

Gold & Guns in Downtown SF. Take a journey back to the rough-and-tumble gold rush era, when San Francisco’s waterfront was dodgy and dangerous. Includes cocktails. See

And finally, finish your tour day with the fun of Beach Blanket Babylon, the long-running satirical musical revue staged in North Beach. Here's my report on the big-hatted fun.

Friday 23 June 2017

Jjimjilbang! The Traditional Baths of South Korea

I travelled to South Korea courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

There's nothing like getting naked and in hot water as a way of, er, immersing yourself in another culture.

So when I visited South Korea in 2014, I couldn't wait to try out a jjimjilbang, the traditional local bathhouse.

As I expected, these places are amazing. Firstly men and women bathe in separate areas, in baths of differing temperatures and compositions.

The compulsory nudity in the bath areas deters some overseas visitors, which is partly why it's remained an authentically Korean experience.

It's accessible to foreigners but still very much dominated by locals, who see these places as a leisure hangout.

In the bath area of a multi-storey jjimjilbang I visited in central Seoul, an attendant gave me the world's most efficient, energetic and somewhat brutal body scrub, removing what seemed kilos of excess skin.

The baths are relaxing, but it's the communal areas visited afterward which are the most fun.

There are people of all ages hanging about there in the pyjama-like tops and shorts we're all issued with.

Patrons can enjoy a range of facilities - snack bars, pools, ice-cold rooms, kiln-heated rooms, computer gaming rooms.

The cost for the additional services you use or food you purchase is recorded on your electronic wristband, and you settle the bill on the way out.

And there's always a sleeping room with simple beds, and big heated floor area where people can sleep - all night if they want to.

It was great fun to experience these baths on my first Seoul visit, joining locals in an activity which turned out to be both memorable and relaxing.

If I lived in Seoul I'd be tempted to visit one of these facilities every Sunday (especially in winter).

After a soothing bath, I could imagine spending hours relaxing, reading a book and, um, chilling out.

Recommended: Dragon Hill Spa, 40-712, Hangangno 3-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Adult entry $14-$18, depending on time of day.

Friday 16 June 2017

Walking Old Delhi, India

A few years ago I visited India's capital Delhi, hosted by Thai Airways, and joined a memorable walking tour of the oldest part of the city. As its original publisher has now removed the resulting story from the Web, here it is again for your enjoyment...

There’s only one way to really discover Old Delhi, the 17th century city laid out by Moghul emperor and Taj Mahal creator Shah Jahan: and that’s to walk it.

Though the government of India is centred on the geometric streets of New Delhi, the 1930s city constructed by the British colonial rulers, Old Delhi has more historic appeal.

Off pulsing Chandni Chowk, the district’s incredibly busy main street, are dozens of narrow alleyways leading to shopping precincts and eateries.

It’s not an easy place to navigate as a pedestrian. Which is why a guide from local company Delhi Heritage Walks leads a group through the organised chaos of Chandni Chowk and its back streets.

Forts and temples

The walk begins at the grandest end of Chandni Chowk, at a T-junction opposite the massive Red Fort, once the palace of the Moghul Emperors. Its outlines are hazy in the early morning, but I can make out the Lahore Gate opposite the walk’s meeting point, the Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir temple of the Jain faith.

The guide today is Kanika Singh, a history graduate with a detailed knowledge of Moghul-era Delhi - and in fact the majority of the tour group is made up of Indians interested in their own country’s history.

Kanika explains that Sunday morning is the best time for the walk because it’s the only time that the area is quiet enough to lead a group; though 'quiet' is a relative term in Delhi, as there are plenty of people around us, strolling, sitting, shopping and cycling.

Martyrs of history

Squeezing along the cracked pavement between motorcycles and other pedestrians, the group follows Kanika as she points out merchants’ houses from the 19th century, their attractive facades now plastered with advertising.

Nearby there's a very respectable looking bank wherein the manager was killed by rebels in the uprising against British rule of 1857.

On a lighter note, a stall titled The Famous Jalebi Wala sells the deep-fried rings of sweet batter known as jalebi.

Further on, there’s another reminder of the diverse spirituality that’s at the heart of Indian history and culture: the Sis Ganj Gurdwara, an important Sikh place of worship.

It was on this spot, says Kanika, that the cruel Emperor Aurangzeb murdered a Sikh guru in the 17th century, which led to the later erection of this temple in his memory.

Alleys lead to the square

After passing a decorative blue and white fountain, Kanika suddenly leads the group off the main street into a narrow alley, pointing out a popular stall selling daulat ki chaat.

This fascinating sweet Delhi specialty is made from frothed milk, saffron, pistachios and sugar, and decorated with the edible silver leaf known as varq. It’s a light, insubstantial treat with an unforgettable taste, and the more poetic merchants will tell you it requires an additional dose of moonlight to get it just right.

There’s no time to sample any, however, as Kanika leads onward while explaining how these areas stretching back from Chandni Chowk were formerly nobles’ estates enclosed by walls and gates.

Most of these boundaries were pulled down by the British to aid movement, but the odd gate still remains. Kanika points to one, a solid metal structure behind a stationery stall.

Returning to the main road, the space suddenly opens out. Here was once a public square, with a pool that reflected moonlight - which is what Chandni Chowk means, moonlit square.

The European-styled building opposite was once the British-built Town Hall, though it’s watched over nowadays by a statue of early independence leader Swami Shardhanand.

A holy oasis

Crossing the road and entering another alleyway, we take a moment to inspect the interior of a small Hindu temple with a beautiful central canopy.

It’s dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva, but surprisingly it’s also a family home. Kanika says the owner sells tea in the alleyway in front of the entrance on weekdays, and indeed there’s a small teacup-shaped sign hanging on one side.

The smallness of the temple is in sharp contrast with the vastness of the Fatehpuri Mosque, the next stop on the tour.

Named after a wife of Shah Jahan, the founder of the city, it’s a congregational mosque with a spacious open-air interior within its walls. It’s a peaceful place to visit on a Sunday morning, as visitors walk through its interior holding their shoes in deference to the Muslim tradition of entering a mosque without footwear.

At the far end is a structure with graceful arched openings and a central dome, wherein the imam preaches his sermon on a Friday, the Muslim holy day. In the centre of the vast courtyard is a decorative water tank which worshippers use for ablutions before prayer. Perched along the edge of this are people, sitting quietly as if in contemplation.

After the hectic street, this is the perfect place to take a moment to draw breath, relax and appreciate a dash of serenity.

Chillies give way to a view

Nearing the end of its Old Delhi adventure, the group enters the Gadodia Market, a covered space given over to spice merchants. This is the place to buy chillies, and the pungent aroma of the hot red peppers seem ground into every stone within the market.

From here, the group enders a battered old stairwell and climbs to the top of the building. There’s a sweeping view of Old Delhi from this point, taking in minarets, gates, the fort, Chandni Chowk, and all the Delhi residents who make the old city such a memorable place for a Sunday morning exploration.

For more details and to make bookings, visit the Delhi Heritage Tours website.

Friday 9 June 2017

Twin Peaks: It is Happening Again

When Twin Peaks burst onto our TV screens here in Australia in 1991, we knew immediately we were watching something special.

At the time, Narrelle Harris and I were deeply involved in science fiction fandom, particularly those sections serving enthusiasts of British programs such as Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.

So it made sense for us to extend our fannish habits toward this astonishing new American show, with strong strands of horror and fantasy in its DNA.

One thing we did was to hold a costume party, on 18 May 1991. That’s where the above photo comes from – yes, that’s me as Doctor Jacoby, at the tender age of 26. Here's another shot of some attendees, appearing as (from left to right) Nadine, Audrey, James, two Coopers and Blackie:

The second and more substantial thing was to create a fanzine, Wrapped in Plastic (no relation to the US magazine of the same name, which ran from 1992 to 2005).

Publishing a fan magazine like this was second nature back then for ardent fans of popular science fiction or fantasy TV shows. For – and bear with me here – the Internet as we know it was yet to be born.

Yes! The World Wide Web was only opened to the public in late 1991, and the Mosaic browser which made it useful and easily accessible debuted in 1993. Email had been around for a while, but generally only scientists and academics used it back then.

So, in the age before digital, we had to share our passions in pure analogue style.

That meant typing, collating and literally cutting and pasting material onto sheets of A4 paper, which would then be photocopied, stapled and posted to subscribers.

Aside from meetings where people might get together to watch bootleg copies of episodes unavailable on VHS cassette, fanzines provided one of the few regular forums for fans to discuss their favourite TV programs.

They contained articles analysing minutiae of episodes, and speculating what might come next. There were short stories continuing the adventures of characters outside the confines of the small screen.

There was fan art, and clippings from newspapers and magazines. And there were lively letters to the editor, our forerunners of Facebook posts.

So… here for your download pleasure is an edited PDF version of the four issues of Wrapped in Plastic, which ran from August 1991 to June 1992.

For copyright reasons I’ve removed the various photocopied clippings which took up a fair chunk of each issue, as well as an ongoing episode guide which seems redundant now.

At Twede's (aka the Double R), North Bend in 2015
What remains are articles, letters, reviews, cartoons, crosswords, short stories (one a bit saucy), and a lot of fan art.

Amongst this are marvellous covers by Andrew Williams and Tim Howe, and many entertaining illustrations by my late, great friend Ian Gunn – don’t miss his absurdly overcomplicated flowchart on the last page on Issue One.

As you flick through the PDF, you’ll notice changing fonts – sometimes quite horrible dot-matrix style ones – along with variations in contrast that can make the text difficult to read.

What can I say? I didn’t have a computer then, so most of the fanzine was typed on an electric typewriter. However, if a contributor provided an article on a sheet of paper in their own chosen font, it was much easier to paste that in than to retype it. Hence the variety.

Overlooking the Snoqualmie Falls (aka White Tail Falls)
and the Salish Lodge (The Great Northern) in 2015.
They were simpler times. But not, luckily, in Twin Peaks USA.

And now, all the way here in the future, it is happening again. As I said to my future self back in 1991, “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” And I made that date. Sort of.

Thanks to all the contributors to Wrapped in Plastic back in the day; if I’ve lost touch with you and you happen across this post, please get in touch so I can thank you directly.

My greatest gratitude goes to David Lynch and Mark Frost, for sharing their extraordinary creation with us, both in the 1990s and again today.

Its dreamlike sounds, images and characters have stayed with me through the years, and in 2015 I was delighted to visit its filming locations in Snoqualmie and North Bend (with the assistance of Visit Seattle), and write about them three times:
  1. Postcard from Twin Peaks, for The Age;
  2. Welcome to Twin Peaks: a guide to the locations, for Lonely Planet;
  3. Welcome to Twin Peaks (aka Snoqualmie USA), in this blog.
It was good to looking through issues of my fanzine again, handmade expressions of enthusiasm for a superlative television series. And great to be doing so in the middle of new episodes exploring the strange world of Twin Peaks.

In the words of Agent Cooper, “I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen.”

With the new Twin Peaks season, it's once a week. But you get the idea.

Twin Peaks continues until September 2017 on streaming service Stan in Australia, with new episodes available each Monday afternoon. The omnibus edition of 1991-1992 Twin Peaks fanzine Wrapped in Plastic can be downloaded from this link.

Friday 2 June 2017

The Best Coffee in Singapore

When I was preparing to visit Singapore for the first time a couple of years ago, I asked my Singaporean friend Walter Lim [pictured above] for some cafe recommendations. He's recently updated that list for me, so it seems unfair to withhold its coffee goodness from the rest of you. So here, with his blessing, are Walter's Singapore cafe tips...

1. Strangers' Reunion. An interesting concept opened by a former winner of Singapore's barista competition, Ryan Tan. Probably one of the best espresso style coffees here. 33 Kampong Bahru Rd,

2. Chye Seng Huat Hardware. Another hipster joint occupying a former hardware shop [see photo below]. Its exterior is totally deceiving and I suspect it was inspired by Melbourne cafe joints! 150 Tyrwhitt Rd,

3. Nanyang Old Coffee. This joint serves traditional local-style coffee, which normally features a mix of Arabica and Robusta coffee beans, roasted in butter. One of the favourites in heritage-style coffee. 268 South Bridge Rd,

4. Killiney Kopi Tiam. "Kopi tiam" means coffee shop in our vernacular Hokkien dialect. The original Killiney coffee shop in Killiney Road may be worth trying. It serves the same traditional coffee as Nanyang. 67 Killiney Rd,

5. Nylon Coffee Roasters. This hole-in-the-wall joint in a quiet residential neighbourhood has its fans. They only serve espresso style coffees and nothing else! Pretty decent too. 4 Everton Park #01-40,

6. Ronin. Uses a coffee blend roasted and imported from Melbourne (haha), Australia. Its coffee blend is a mix of 13 different origins, and is full-bodied and nutty, with a light citrus acidity that is designed to be served with milk for a smooth latte/cappuccino with a cocoa finish. 17 Hongkong St,

7. Symmetry. Symmetry is a restaurant and bar that is inspired by Australian casual dining culture, and French cuisine. 9 Jalan Kubor,

8. Oriole Coffee + Bar. Opened by Keith Loh, winner of Singapore's National Barista Championships in 2010. Oriole has won a cult following of coffee enthusiasts. Sourcing the finest and freshest Arabica beans, roasted locally before being brewed and retailed at outlets in the city.