Wednesday 27 April 2016

My sister goes to North Korea for Pyongyang marathon with me

From The New Paper on Sunday:

On April 7, 13 North Korean restaurant workers defected en masse to South Korea.

This suggests that North Korea is a place people flee from, not flock to.

Yet three days later, 1,000 foreigners flocked to the reclusive country to run in the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, also known as the Pyongyang Marathon.

Singaporean Ong Wann was one of them. She was there with her brother, a running enthusiast, to race in the 10km category of the event.

He had asked her to go along to be his translator as she speaks Korean.

Miss Ong, 39, who owns and operates the Hanok Korean Language School in Singapore, had studied to be a Korean language teacher in Sogang University and Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

She had previously run the 10km race in the Standard Chartered Marathon and Great Eastern Women’s Run. This would be her first overseas race.

Was she apprehensive about going to North Korea, especially since an American tourist was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for stealing a poster from a Pyongyang hotel?

“Nope,” Miss Ong says. “I have friends who have been there and all of them got back safely.

“But the South Korean teachers in my school were both excited and worried for me. One of them said, ‘You must come back alive!’

“Although she was joking, I think she really meant it too.”

Miss Ong had to fly from Singapore to Beijing, China, to make the connecting flight to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier, which has been ranked the world’s worst airline four years in a row by Skytrax.

After surviving the two-hour flight, she was surprised to find that she could order a skinny latte at the Pyongyang airport cafe. “Some cafes in Singapore don’t even have low-fat milk,” she says.

Miss Ong was then taken in a tour bus to 22m-tall bronze statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il and instructed to place flowers in front of the statues and bow to them.

During a pre-tour briefing, Miss Ong was told that the leaders were treated almost like religious figures, and visitors must be careful not to behave inappropriately at their monuments.

While photography is allowed, the whole statue must be in the frame. You cannot, for example, take a picture of the statues from the waist up.

There are other restrictions — no photos of the military, construction sites and local people without their permission.

But when Miss Ong saw a local couple using the giant statues as backdrop for a bridal shoot, she couldn’t resist taking a picture of them — without their permission.

It is a wonder she wasn’t arrested and sent to a labour camp immediately.

You are also not allowed to go anywhere without your tour guide. At the hotel, guests were warned not to wander beyond the hotel grounds.

Not that you would want or need to. In the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where Miss Ong stayed and the American stole the poster, you can drink at the bar, buy snacks, shop for souvenirs, get a haircut, swim, bowl, play billiards and table tennis, and sing karaoke to rock classics like Bohemian Rhapsody.

“During the pre-tour briefing, we were told there’s a massage parlour, which was really a brothel,” she says.

Before going to Pyongyang, Miss Ong also read that the North Koreans foreigners see on the streets are actors. To verify this, after completing her 10km race, she chatted with two young North Korean runners and asked for permission to take pictures with them. “They are not actors,” she concludes.

Her fluency in the Korean language also came in handy as she became the de facto translator for her tour group of runners from Europe, US, Israel and Hong Kong, who turned to her to find out the prices of souvenirs and decipher random signs and slogans on propaganda posters for sale.

“I know as tourists, what we saw and experienced are many times better than what most North Korean enjoy,” says Miss Ong.

“By talking to the local tour guides, it seems their leisure lives revolve around sports and hanging out with friends and family.

“Although they use mobile phones and have a national intranet instead of the Internet, they are careful about what they say and have a slower pace of life — it’s almost like going back to 30 years ago.

Miss Ong flew out of North Korea with her brother the day after the marathon and was surprised that at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, their cameras weren’t checked for unauthorised photographs.

The trip made her grapple with her presumptions about the country, “some true and others utter nonsense”, she says.

“I could describe the experience as surreal, strange, unexpected, because the place is really more normal than what we expected it to be.”

Back in Singapore, in the taxi from Changi Airport, Miss Ong mentioned to the driver that she and her brother had just returned from North Korea and was taken aback by the cabby’s intense reaction.

She recounts: “He started telling us how dangerous the place was and insisted that it wasn’t safe like we said.

“It was as if he was the one there — not us.”

From The Korea Times:
Pyongyang marathon runner says she felt no sense of crisis in Pyongyang

There appears to be no sense of crisis in Pyongyang according to a foreign participant in a North Korean marathon.

"I did not find any sense of crisis and uneasiness in North Korea despite the ongoing international sanctions," said a Singaporean woman, fresh from her rare trip to Pyongyang to participate in this year's annual Pyongyang marathon.

"The streets of Pyongyang, with the full blossoms of cherry and forsythia, were peaceful and people looked cheerful and bright," Ong Wann told Yonhap News Agency in a telephone conversation.

Ong, 39, made a rare three-day trip to Pyongyang from April 9 with her brother and joined the 10-kilometer half marathon course. Participants can choose to run the full or half marathon.

The Pyongyang marathon is officially called the "Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon." Mangyongdae is the place where North Korea says its founding leader Kim Il-sung and the late grandfather of the current leader Kim Jong-un, was born.

Kim Il-sung's birthday is April 15 and the marathon is one of many events staged to celebrate the key date.

This year marked the third time that foreign amateurs have been allowed to take part in the event. However, the race saw an increase in amateur participation -- nearly 1,000 foreign amateurs took part, the marathon's organizers said.

The Singaporean woman studied in South Korea previously and speaks Korean fluently. She is currently operating a Korean language institute in Singapore.

During her trip to Pyongyang, she occasionally acted as an interpreter for other foreigners including her brother.

She said the atmosphere in Pyongyang was far from any sense of crisis or insecurity although the marathon event was held under the severe international sanctions for the North's nuclear test in January and the long-range rocket launch the following month.

She explained the landscape of Pyongyang was generally peaceful when she looked around some tourist spots such as Mansudae Hill and nearby parks and subway stations.

"The streets of Pyongyang were full of cherry and forsythia blossoms and people on the streets look relatively bright," she said.

"At first I somewhat had a sense of fear as I had a negative image of North Korea which I had obtained from newspapers and media, but was able to adapt myself soon," she said.

"Before I went to North Korea I was told about the prohibitions on what to do and what is not allowed in the country. In fact, individual action was impossible without North Korean guides, but nevertheless their control was not as tight as I first imagined," she said.

Ong said she felt she came to a different world when she saw all the propaganda posters and mural paintings on the walls of subway stations in Pyongyang, which is quite different from commercial advertisements that are often seen in capitalistic countries.

She said that North Korea was also different from other former communist bloc countries which had transformed themselves into capitalistic system in some areas.

"I felt North Korea is not like China and Russia," she said.


I went to North Korea & ran 10k in the Pyongyang marathon

I went to North Korea & took lots of selfies

I went to North Korea & asked for the Kim Jong Un haircut (and lived)

I took the MRT train in North Korea & it didn't break down

Tuesday 26 April 2016

I took the MRT train in North Korea and it didn't break down

In light of another major MRT breakdown in Singapore, I figure now is the perfect time to share my experience of taking the Metro in North Korea just over two weeks ago.

This was in the middle of a Saturday afternoon the day before the Pyongyang marathon.

It was arranged for us to take the train as a group, so we didn't get to experience how the ticketing system works.

Outside a Metro station:

Inside the station with my sister looking at the turnstiles:

Taking the longest escalator ride (4 minutes) down to the deepest underground rail system in the world:

The train platforms are quite grandly decorated.

Newspapers for the communists, I mean, commuters to read.

A video taken by my sister of a train arriving:

Unlike in Singapore, there are no safety barriers on the platform. It looked like the passengers have to pull open the train doors themselves.

On the train:

One thing I noticed about the train was that some of the windows can be opened and were, which made the ride even noisier.

Leaving the station:

Another video taken by my sister riding the escalator up and out of the station:


I went to North Korea & asked for the Kim Jong Un haircut (and lived)

I went to North Korea & took lots of selfies

Sunday 24 April 2016

Too hot: Bad news for durian lovers, especially if you live in Choa Chu Kang

April has been the cruellest month for durian lovers and Choa Chu Kang residents.

Just my luck. I love durian and live in Choa Chu Kang.

You know how the weather has been even hotter than usual lately?

It’s so hot that you sort of understand why Felicia Chin looked almost nude at last Sunday’s Star Awards — to keep cool.

But while Rui En apologised that night for the “Do you know who I am” incident, some viewers would contend it was Chin who should have apologised for her see-through dress.

Who does she think she is? Ann Kok?

Blame it on the heat.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) said the highest daily maximum temperature recorded in Singapore on Tuesday was 36 deg C and on Wednesday (until 3pm), it was 35.1 deg C.

Both were recorded in Choa Chu Kang.

I knew I should’ve moved to Bukit Batok!

At least the people there got a carnival last Sunday.

It was organised by People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Murali Pillai, who is campaigning for the by-election to be held on May 7 after Mr David Ong resigned as Bukit Batok MP over a “personal indiscretion”.

So in a way, Bukit Batok residents should really thank Mr Ong for the carnival.

While PAP was throwing a carnival, Singapore Democratic Party candidate Chee Soon Juan appeared to be literally “running” for election at Bukit Batok Nature Park.

He wrote: “It was like a sauna, hot and humid, but had a good morning workout.”

I know Dr Chee really wants to get into Parliament, but I don’t think it’s worth suffering heatstroke for.

It’s so hot that even our durian supply from Malaysia could be affected. A drop of up to 40 per cent is expected.

“The durian season starts in the next three months and half of my trees have failed to produce any flowers because of the weather,” a durian farmer in Perak told the Malay Mail.

And as if that’s not enough bad news for durian lovers, 76 cases of food poisoning related to durian pastries prepared at Goodwood Park Hotel have been reported since mid-March.

Taking time off from reminding us how hot it is, NEA has suspended the licence of the hotel bakery.

In response, the hotel posted on Facebook:
“Goodwood Park Hotel would like to extend our sincere apologies to all our guests affected by the temporary cessation of sales of durian pastries and other pastries produced by the hotel’s pastry kitchen.”
Notice the hotel didn’t apologise for the food-poisoning cases. It’s apologising for the inconvenience caused by the closure of its bakery.

The hotel also had a pop-up stall at Lot One mall last week.

A spokesman said: “Guests who purchased our durian pastries at Lot One from April 18 to 21 are advised to throw them away and contact the hotel for their refunds.”

Guess where Lot One mall is.

That’s right — Choa Chu Kang.

See how unlucky durian lovers in Choa Chu Kang are?

And to add insult to food poisoning, on Wednesday, our favourite fruit was dissed on American national TV.

US actress Jessica Chastain, who was in Singapore three weeks ago to promote The Huntsman: Winter’s War, brought out a durian on US talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Or as she pronounced it, “dorian”.

At first, she called it the king of fruit in Asia.

Then she said: “They call it the blue cheese of fruit.” That sounded like a demotion to me.

I mean, if someone called me “the king of writers”, I would think, yeah, sure, why not?

But if someone called me “the blue cheese of writers”, I would have to start counting the number of days since I last showered.

Chastain, a rare Caucasian who claims to love durian, even said: “It kind of smells like a garbage can, right?”

A photo posted by Jessica Chastain (@chastainiac) on

Calling it “foul” and “vile”, talk show host Kimmel said he felt like “throwing up a little bit” after some durian was shoved into his mouth by Chastain.

He then asked his sidekick Guillermo to take the remaining fruit and “throw it into the sea or something like that”.

Throw it into the sea? Doesn’t he know about the possible upcoming durian shortage caused by the heatwave?

T.S. Eliot was right when he wrote that April is the cruellest month. Who knew he was a durian fan too?

But I think I will read some Oscar Wilde next. Perhaps a novel — The Picture Of Durian Gray.

- Published in The New Paper, 24 April 2016

Thursday 21 April 2016

Stop using S'pore's ranking in World Press Freedom Index to bash media

Here we go again.

Reporters Without Borders has just released its 2016 World Press Freedom Index, where Singapore fell one place from last year's lowly 153rd ranking to an even lowlier 154th position out of 180 countries.

It has become a cliche to use this ranking to bash "mainstream media", specifically the news outlets of SPH and Mediacorp, and the journalists who work for them.

I find this terribly ironic.

For one thing, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders is a pro-journalist organisation.

It doesn't distinguish "mainstream media" from so-called "alternative media". It advocates freedom of information for all and seeks protection for journalists and bloggers alike.

What many would take the World Press Freedom Index ranking to mean is that Singapore's press is 154th in the world when actually it's Singapore's press freedom that's ranked 154th. It is an important distinction.

While you may argue that the lack of press freedom leads to a lousy press, let's not confuse the two as the same thing.

In fact, I would argue that what the low ranking shows is not how bad Singapore's press is, but how hard it is here to be a journalist at all.

It's like being a fireman in a volcano. The odds are stacked against you, but you still got to do your job the best you can.

On the other hand, if you want to use the ranking to bash the Government for creating such an environment, that's perfectly fine.

Saturday 16 April 2016

Rui En walked out of an audition with me: 'Do you know who I am?'

Back in the 90s, when I was still sort of a journalist, I was asked to interview a boss of some company for a profile piece.

I was told that the boss would be expecting my call.

So I called the number I was given and someone I assumed was the boss's assistant answered.

I introduced myself and asked to speak to the boss.

The assistant said the boss was busy.

That was when I said: "Do you know who I am?"

I realised almost right away that was a mistake.

What I meant was "I'm told he is expecting my call". Instead I came across as "Do you know how important I am? So don't fuck with me."

I left my number with the assistant, but the boss never called back and I never got the interview.

I can imagine the assistant telling the boss: "This asshole just called and wanted to speak to you. I told him you were busy and he said 'Do you know who I am?'"

Boss: "Really? Who the hell does he think he is?"

Assistant: "You want to call him back?"

Boss: "Fuck him."

So I can believe that when Rui En said "Do you know who I am?" to the guy whose motorbike she knocked over, she didn't mean "Do you know what a big star I am? So don't fuck with me."

On the other hand, I have met Rui En.

It was maybe 10 years ago when I was working at MediaCorp. I was auditioning actresses for the lead in a new Channel 5 TV pilot I was developing.

I remember Belinda Lee, who really put a lot of effort into the audition, but she was too "drama" and not comedic enough for the role. Still, I liked her.

And then there was Rui En.

I have auditioned many actors and actresses before, but Rui En was the first to walk out of an audition.

My guess is that there was some misunderstanding about what she was doing there. I never found out exactly what happened.

I was in the middle of giving her direction in the audition room when she just decided she wasn't doing it anymore and walked out. She never explained why.

But judging by her haughty attitude at the audition, if she were to explain, I suspect what she would say is: "Do you know what a big star I am? Why should I audition for you?"

In other words: "Do you know who I am?"

Thursday 14 April 2016

I went to North Korea & ran 10k in the Pyongyang marathon

I first read about the Pyongyang marathon late last year via the Just Run Lah Faceboook page.

I immediately wanted to join - if I could get my Korean-speaking sister to go with me. I did by offering to pay for the whole trip for both of us.

Which was how I ended up in North Korea on Sunday morning getting ready for my 10km run in the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon.

It would be my first race overseas.

Here I am on the tour bus pinning my race bib on my ugly T-shirt given by the travel company that brought us to DPRK:

Flag-off was 9.30am inside the May Day Stadium, but first, we have to wait for the opening ceremony.

Here we are posing with our tour group in the stadium tunnel:

The video below shows us going into the stadium onto the field for the opening ceremony. This was the best part of the trip for me:

Another video, taken by my sister:

After the opening ceremony, we had to rush back into the tunnel and change into our running gear for the flag-off.

Below are photos of the 10km route taken with my Autographer camera:

Yes, I did get to high five (or low five) the Korean bystanders along the way, especially the kids.

One major disappointment about the race is that the 10km finish line is just mats. You can barely tell that it's the finish line.

There was no one giving out finisher T-shirts or medals because only the top finishers in the various categories get medals during the closing ceremony.

Although there were drinks station along the way, there was no one giving you water after you finish. That's why I was saving my water from the last drinks station, knowing it was almost 10km. You can see me holding a cup after crossing the mats in the photo below.

After the race, my sister spoke to these children to find out whether they were actors hired to be there for our benefit. She concluded that they weren't.

Don't believe everything you see in The Interview.

I don't know why my marathon certificate says I'm female.

I kind of wished I had signed up for the half marathon so that I could've seen more of Pyongyang and its people on foot, and made the trip more worthwhile.

Because of the cooler-than-Singapore weather, I think I might have been able to make the two-and-a-half-hour cut-off time for the half marathon.

Maybe next year?


I went to North Korea & asked for the Kim Jong Un haircut (and lived)

I went to North Korea & took lots of selfies


Strictly no selfies with Kim Jong Un! 1,000 foreigners flock to North Korea for the world's strangest marathon

More Than 1,600 Runners Take Part in Pyongyang Marathon

An American in North Korea: What it's like to run the Pyongyang marathon