This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Opium and the origins of Singaporean wealth

opiumIt is a sobering reminder to have the text “DEATH for drug traffickers under Singapore law” written on my visitor pass. How ironic it is, then, that much of Singapore’s past is linked to hard drugs: opium trade between China and the British Empire.

As the British empire is credited as the founders of Singapore, and Britain became an empire to a large extent thanks to the cash flowing in from opium, much of Singapore’s colonial wealth and growth momentum could also be attributed to this highly addictive and devastating drug, flowing out from British India towards China, through Singapore’s harbors.

As I amble through the National Museum of Singapore, none of this is mentioned anywhere. Instead what I see are a few old opium pipes and a reproduction of an old awareness article painting the picture of what happens to a man and his family when he gets hooked on opium (spoiler: in the end he makes his wife work for him so he can buy more opium, and finally he dies leaving his wife without a legal guardian). What is mentioned is that Thomas Stamford Raffles, one of the two credited founders of Singapore, was against gambling and addition, and evicted his British co-founder who was into these decadent activities. The Brits seem to politely be hailed as patrons of Singapore.

The National Museum does have one exhibition that highly contrasts against the politeness of Singaporean culture: one covering the Japanese invasion during 1942-45. It leaves no sense of ambiguity and starkly accuses Japan of ethnocide of any “anti-Japanese” Chinese, as well as an attempt at annihilating local culture. The exhibition explains that the Japanese vision was to wipe out all other languages and to instil a uniform national identity. When children were required to learn and to speak Japanese in school, many parents refused to send their children to school. When the older adult generation was required to learn Japanese for work, they chose to stay at home if they could. Those who spoke the language received incentives and benefits, but the above combined with the degree of difficulty in learning Japanese made the attempt of introducing culture via language a failure.

Three years seems like a short while, but my impression from the exhibition is that it was a difficult and dark time. The proper building of modern Singapore began in the 1950s-60s, with a positive outlook after the people had decided they did not want to be part of Malaysia. Indeed, in the 60s there was an attempt at merging little Singapore with its larger neighbor, but people objected and the merger was short-lived. It must have been a brave decision to try to survive on one’s own, geographically sandwiched between Indonesia and the West, and Malaysia to the North and Northeast. But what must have been a very thought-through economical growth strategy worked, as Singapore is now considered a prime economy in all of Southeast Asia.

Opium trade, why would anyone think of such ancient times anyway?

(Singapore; July 2018)


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A wooden town

porvooPerhaps once this was a busy street, crowded with horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians in fine suits and long dresses, and dogs and children running around? Now it is simply quiet and idyllic, with greens shooting up between the cobblestones that get to rest most of the day.

Porvoo was founded in the 13th century but has probably burned down many times since. Most of the houses currently standing are from the 19th century. As it is once again fashionable to cherish old houses, perhaps these houses could survive longer than most wooden buildings used to do (before they happened to burn down into ashes)?

(Porvoo old town, Finland; July 2018)


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On the wall in Alassio

alassio-5Jean Cocteau sure did love the Riviera. His self-portrait is on the Muretto wall by in Alassio, and he self-handedly painted an entire fishers’ chapel interior in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Cocteau’s portrait ended up on the brick wall in Alassio nearly 10 years after Hemingway’s autograph, though. The story goes that the local café keeper wanted to show off his famous visitors, and asked a few of them to sign a couple of colorful tiles. In the dark of the night they went up on the wall. When nobody complained, he kept adding more. Today the wall stretches across the entire train station square, with over 500 named tiles of visitors to the city; like a guest log  for “those that matter”. Who decides who matters is something I would like to know, as the famous jetsetters’ hangout Caffé Roma is long gone.
alassio-4(Alassio, Italy; July 2018)


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Dear old wisteria

genoa-9Dear old wisteria, how old are you? How were you brought to the rooftop of the palazzo Doria Tursi on via Garibaldi? Were you a sight to be seen, covered in periwinkle flowers?  Were you the centerpiece of a pre-dinner cocktail gathering? How many kisses stolen and promises of love fervently whispered have you hidden underneath your branches?

Wikipedia tells me that your kind was not brought from far Asia until the early 1800s, which means you are probably not more than two hundred years old. Do you agree? And by the way, did you know that the house you grow on is three hundred years older yet?

(Genoa, Italy; July 2018)


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Party palazzos

genoa-7No, this is not the Versailles. This is not even in France. The Italian aristocrats knew how to build palazzos, too. And in Genoa they built an entire street of palazzos. Imagine it as any other neighborhood: families living next-door to each other – except for instead of a house or an apartment each would have a gilded castle to themselves, complete with rooftop gardens large enough to serve cocktail parties and balls. genoa-6And while we are imagining: what must it have been like to know that any given night there was some dinner or ball attracting dozens of carriages into the tiny street? Oh the hubbub. And oh the shame, if one was not invited.
genoa-5(Genoa, Italy; July 2018)


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The emperor’s fishing hideaway

koskimaja-4Once upon a time, a young crown prince went salmon fishing by a whitewater surrounded by scraggly old pines and water-polished rocks. He discovered he could wade between a number of little islets, surrounded by foamy flying currents and leaping salmon. After just a day he and his princess were in love with the rugged place, one that was Nature’s own and nobody else’s. koskimaja-1Years later, the crown prince returned, now as the Emperor of Russia. He rediscovered his love for the wilderness and said, “let us build a house for us. Let it be a simple, wooden fishing cottage. Let it be a Finnish house on Finnish grand duchy soil, for the Russian emperor to be.”koskimaja-2And so the house was built as were the wishes of the crown prince. It was simple but of skilled making, and out of the best materials. There was a kitchen – and to the horror of the staff, the Empress Maria Feodorovna cooked in the kitchen with her own bare white hands. There were beds upstairs – but whether anybody slept in them overnight is not known, as the Emperor’s fleet was moored right beyond the last bend of the river, by the coast. The Emperor is rumored to have chopped his own firewood – also quite unheard of. But then again, who would hear or care? Such things are what hideaways are for. Even for the greatest of royalty.
koskimaja-3(Langinkoski, Kotka, Finland; June 2018)