Singapore Gets An Apple Store

Finally.

After years of waiting, Singapore got its own Apple Store on Orchard Road (where else?) in May of 2017.

I’ve been in the ecosystem for about 14 years now, and getting good sales service and support from third-party resellers has been consistently hard. Back when Funan the IT Mall was still around, there were a few small shops that knew what they were doing with Macs, but for the most part, the bigger chains gave people bad advice, installed RAM chips facing the wrong way, and stocked some pretty abysmal accessories at outrageous prices. Apple Retail have done all of the above on a bad day, too, I’m sure, but at least they’re held to higher standards.

The two-level store follows the recent round of store designs by Norman Foster, with lots of large indoor plants and round headphone stands on the far end. You get upstairs via a symmetrical pair of spiral staircases cut into cool stone walls on either side; no glass staircases or elevators here. I read in some press release that the materials are meant to echo the Apple Park campus’s design language, which I guess is … fine.

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While it’s nice to have a place to buy devices and “feel part of a community” with the new Today At Apple events, I think the main benefit of having this here is going to be accessible, proper customer support in the city. I’ve been down to industrial parks way too many times to get my iPhone looked at in the past, and it’s not fun.


 

A word about my current setup, for future reference: I’ve not bought a new Mac in 7 years. The current iMac struggles along and is only used once every couple of months to do the things only a Mac can do for arbitrary reasons. I get most of my work done on a MacBook Pro supplied by the company, but for personal use, my iPhone and a couple of iPad Pros do everything I need or have time for. The 12.9” version gets a lot of use as a desk-bound typing machine and a bed-bound Netflix player, which is really underutilizing it, I know. The smaller one gets taken everywhere because of its size, and I’m hoping for it to replace the MBP for a lot of little things at work like note taking and task management. Who wants to bring a big laptop home every night anyway?

First Photos From a Fujifilm X100T

I was in the market for a Sony RX1R because I’d heard that the price had come down to as low as $2,400 SGD at third-party retailers, whereas Sony’s own retail stores still sells them for about $3,800. I know that’s a lot of money for a fixed-lens camera, but it was intriguing. I bought a Ricoh GR earlier this year as a birthday present to myself, and have only used it sparingly. The guilt! How could I justify a camera for Christmas too?

This particular fit of consumer madness began when a friend started looking at the new model, confusingly named the Sony RX1RII, or RX1Rm2, and which costs $5,000, for his own needs (isn’t that how it always starts?). He eventually decided to go even further upmarket with a Leica, but that’s a different story.

In the end, I hesitated too long because of the asking price and the unbearable judgment of my already adequate camera shelf, and discovered earlier this week that the older RX1R was no longer available at every third-party camera store I called and visited. My guess is Sony wanted better control of the price, and to remove competition for the new $5,000 model. It’s better, but it’s not $2,600 better.

So after a bit more research and the use of a friend’s Fujifilm X100S for a few days, I got the beautiful X100T you see above. It’s nearly a thousand dollars cheaper than the Sony would have been. It’s not a fair comparison because the sensor is APS-C sized instead of full frame, but its 35mm prime lens barrel is a lot shorter and less conspicuous as a result. Fuji’s color reproduction and JPEG quality is also quite lovely, and I’m happy with the way things look straight out of the camera. I often find the Ricoh GR series’ 28mm field of view too wide for most purposes, and with many other compacts now starting at 24mm (like Sony’s RX100), it feels great to finally shoot with The Standard.

A quick recap of the specs, if you have the time:

  • Fixed 35mm f2 Fujinon lens
  • 16mp CMOS sensor with phase detection autofocus
  • An integrated hybrid viewfinder that switches from optical to electronic with the flick of a switch (only the new RX1R has an EVF)
  • Built-in WiFI for transferring photos to a smartphone via Fuji’s barely functional app
  • Software emulation of Fujifilm’s classic film stocks (perhaps more in name than reality): Provia, Velvia, and Astia
  • A little bigger than the RX1R, although more compact on the whole thanks to a smaller lens
  • An ND filter and electronic shutter mode for really fast captures in bright light

Here are some shots from a photo walk I took yesterday, which happened to coincide with the Hello Kitty Fun Run. I never knew it was such a big deal. Two observations: Having a camera around your neck makes you more liable to be asked to take someone’s photo, and if people notice you pointing one in their direction, they’re more likely to flash you a peace sign.

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Eating Healthy at Grain Traders, Singapore

A little over a year ago, I was eating a KFC rice bucket (it’s popcorn chicken and a cream sauce over greasy Singaporean chicken rice for $4) when some friends on holiday sent photos of themselves by the pool looking trim and fit. Major mirror shame. That same day I started on a diet and ultimately lost about 10 kilos over the following months.

Not knowing anything, I did the most logical thing and went with calorie counting. Over a few weeks and several conversations, I worked out that it was far better to eat protein-rich salads, embrace fats, cut down on carbs, and eliminate unnecessary sugars. Only lately did I learn that eating like this continuously is the most important thing; if you’re only doing it every other day and not letting your body get into a rhythm of ignoring carbs and burning fat, it’s useless.

So lately I’ve been trying to get back into eating healthily because I’ve spent the last 4 months of this year being careless and having too many nasi lemak breakfasts near work. There’s a lot of salad in the CBD area, but it’s awfully generic, especially if you’re looking at the ones in hawker centers. Gotta break it up once in awhile. Which is why I’m really glad to have found Grain Traders at the new Capital Green building diagonally across from Lau Pa Sat.

  

I’m not sure how they describe their concept, but since I’m a copywriter I’m gonna go with “fancy ass salads made with freaking tasty shit”.

I dropped in in the morning for a cup of coffee and a takeaway bowl of roast pork brown rice porridge ($8) which was more pork than porridge. I tried to spoon some rice up for a photo but couldn’t get enough of it because of all the baby corn and avocado and egg in the way. That’s a really good problem to have. The boiled egg, by the way, was perfect: soft and runny in the center.

In our corner of the CBD, breakfast ranges from $2 for some plain fried beehoon to $15 for an expat-friendly wrap. As I ate the porridge, I couldn’t help but imagine how much some of the places around would charge for something like that. Not $8. Maybe $12? A bowl of tomato soup goes for $10 at one place!

   
 

People say I can get a bit obsessive, but if those jerks are too undisciplined to eat the same thing for 6 months straight, I don’t care what they think. So naturally I went back again a few hours later to check out the $16 bowls. You can get them on white sushi rice, brown rice, quinoa, salad leaves, soba, or bulgur wheat.

    

I’m impressed by the amount of care that seems to go into the individual components, like this “crunchy medley of greens” they put in some of the recipes; it’s conceptually one whole unit, but some vegetables in it just pop, like they were cooked and flavored in a separate process, and it elevates the whole thing with complexity. And that’s just one of the 6 or 7 things that was in my “Rooster’s Crow” quinoa bowl today, alongside chicken, roasted peppers, nuts, a mixed bean Pico de Gallo, basil dressing, and… leek?

Every ingredient has its own thing going on, which should justify the cost easily when compared to one of the popular salad chains nearby, which ungenerously spoons in pre-processed chopped olives and cold cherry tomatoes for nearly the same price. I read one comment on Facebook that said $16 was prohibitive and they’d maybe eat there once a month! Sadly, if you’re trying to eat low-carb, there’s no way around spending more since all the cheap stuff is rice and noodles with half a handful of deep-fried protein thrown in.

Anyway, I’ll be going back tomorrow to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, but damn I liked what I saw.

    

Update: Oatmeal with banana, apple, and cinnamon for breakfast the next day. Pretty good along with this bottled white cold brew.

   

 

The Druggists Craft Beer Bar

The Lavender/Jalan Besar area has been a little too hip lately, and walking down the streets you’ll see several cafes with all too twee decor, or preserved signboards from the Chinese businesses that were previously there (the new stores incongruently named the same thing; the coffee place named Chye Seng Huat Hardware an obvious example), with many prices on the new menus a few zeroes removed from the hawker stalls they coexist with.Druggists is one such new factor in the gentrification of an area that houses the undertaking facilities of Singapore Casket, a small stadium, Hong Kong-like shophouses with murky windows through which racks of hanging clothes can be seen, and furniture shops where the products are still made on site and spill out onto the road. It is guilty of all the aforementioned crimes: it’s a craft beer joint with an interior made to look like a traditional Chinese diner, complete with marble tabletops and mosaic flooring; the sign above the front door reads “Chinese Druggists Association”, looking straight out of 60s Chinatown; and a pint will run you up to $21 while bottles of Tiger at the kopitiam across the street can’t be more than $5.But who cares, because you’re there for 23 taps of craft beers imported from across the globe, and they don’t take your VISA at the hawker centers anyway. There’s no way this stuff was going to come cheap, but I’ll tell you what, they make it easy to try a bunch of them. You can get any beer in a half-pint size that’s reasonably priced at about 53% of a full pint. I never understood those bars where the two sizes are something like $12 and $15, and happily, that’s not a problem at Druggists. (What a name! I can’t stand typing it.)If you go to the bathroom, you’ll find the tap over the sink is an actual beer tap, which is a clever touch. The airconditioned interior is enclosed and all hard surfaces, which makes it noisy and difficult to have a conversation, which isn’t so clever. The two tables outside fare much better, and you can enjoy your imported IPAs with the cultural dissonance of a nearby Chinese banner ad (yes, the offline kind) advertising a dodgy sounding sleep/health service for $10-40. It’s delicious.119 Tyrwhitt Road
Singapore 207547

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Singaporean Telcos and Their Chinese Mobile Gambit

One of the immutable truths of living in Singapore and reading our national broadsheet, The Straits Times, is that your Saturday morning news will be interrupted by three large and distinctly color-coded blocks of full-page advertising taken out by the major telcos: red for Singtel, green for StarHub, and orange for M1.

In the late 90s, the brands advertised consisted mainly of Nokia, Motorola, Alcatel, Sony-Ericsson, with a few models from minor players like Sharp, HTC, and Panasonic. You’ve probably recognized the ones still around. Apart from a few new entrants like Apple, Samsung, and LG, the Saturday ad landscape was quite stable for over a decade.

Something started happening this year, around the time Xiaomi launched local operations — their first market outside of the Chinese territories. New brands have started to share space alongside the established premium brands. Oppo/OnePlus. Huawei. Asus. ZTE. All very competitive spec for spec, dollar for dollar.

It’s significant that these Chinese-designed products now share equal space with the Samsungs and LGs in expensive telco media buys, in one of the world’s most saturated and advanced smartphone markets.1 There are similar products coming out of other Asian countries2, but the Chinese brands have far more visibility here.

I won’t go into how Xiaomi employs a differentiated, social media-driven sales model, but I will say that they got a lot of positive press at the start, driving home the idea that they offered comparable quality and reliability at a fraction of the cost. But they’ve been the only ones to get such an image in the mainstream mind, to my knowledge.

The rest are coming into town aggressively — Oppo opened a flagship store at Suntec City, a central mall, and I swear I’ve seen a Huawei store along Orchard Road — but their cachet seems strongest amongst the small group of tech and Android enthusiasts attracted to low-cost, high-value devices, which are replaced frequently.3 These are not mass market items yet, and I wonder when their moment will come, if at all.

What interests me is why the telcos are throwing their weight behind these entrants. Are they a bargaining chip to negotiate better hardware prices with the others, regardless of sales? Or do the postpaid 4 margins on selling already-cheap Chinese phones to consumers just look that much better? Or could it be driven by actual market demand?

My leading theory is that it’s simply a reactionary move that doesn’t consider the longer-term effects of promoting these price-disruptive products. Why? Because telcos are instinctively programmed to serve products at every available price point.

But the low price, contract-free nature of how consumers can otherwise obtain these devices is a threat to the lucrative business of locking people into contracts. Including such devices alongside premium devices in weekly advertising validates them. In the past, doing the same with a $50 Alcatel featurephone and a $500 Nokia “multimedia computer” was apples and oranges. Now, the products at both price points are much more similar, and one of them doesn’t need to be paid off in monthly installments. Legitimising cheaper smartphones inspires potential postpaid customers to simply buy a contract-free phone online (or pick one up in a store), and then save with a prepaid mobile line instead. At least that explains why Oppo is paying downtown rent on a flagship store. The telco strategy, though, that isn’t so clear.


  1. As of January 2014, Singapore had 87% smartphone penetration, with 29% of people owning more than one device. Anecdotally, the vast majority are on subsidized/contracted premium devices: iPhones, Galaxy S and Note models, etc. 
  2.  Joi Ito has a post about visiting Shenzhen that may be enlightening. 
  3. I think of this one friend as an edge case, but it’d be interesting if there were more like her: a former iPhone user, she found herself too clumsy to trust with expensive phones (they were smashed, stolen, or fell into toilets), and now uses Xiaomis because they are pretty much disposable at around USD$140 a pop. 
  4. Singapore has a bit in common with the U.S. phone market, in that only a minority pay full price or even know what the actual prices of their phones are. Everyone else pays a smaller sum upfront, with the rest of the device cost bundled into monthly fees. Some of the new Chinese phones are free/virtually free at their subsidized prices, but so are older iPhones and Samsungs, and it’s hard to see the price advantage lasting. For any brand that doesn’t enjoy the recognition of a Xiaomi, that window may close when current large-screened iPhones get priced down. 

LINE Pop-Up Store Singapore, May 2014

Japanese-Korean messaging app LINE has opened their first pop-up store in Singapore, on a prominent stretch of the core shopping boulevard of Orchard Road. It will run for a month and reap immeasurable marketing value from the high visibility and sure-to-grow lines of fans eager to buy their cleverly designed character merchandise.1

I dropped by on its first evening tonight with some colleagues, and we spent between $20–60 each. I would have spent $100, but put down a pack of 100 art postcards ($55) at the last minute. This is on top of the $40 I’ve spent on in-app purchase stickers over the last year or two of being on the platform. I don’t think any other messenger currently comes close in terms of having built brand loyalty or monetization potential that doesn’t involve serving ads or selling personal data.

Standing outside and watching the crowd, I remarked to a UX designer colleague that no other messaging app could pull off something like this in the middle of town, not WhatsApp, not WeChat. He correctly observed that none of the others have strong IP from which to make their own merchandise to even sell in a store.

“And it’s all this bloody kiddy stuff!”, I said, clutching a plastic bag filled with stickers and a pair of mugs that look like the faces of a bear and a bird. “It’s not kiddy,” he started to protest before going, “Oh alright, I guess it is.” Takeaway: “Kiddy” is largely irrelevant in Asia.


18-to-29-year-old females are its “core target,” says (U.S. CEO Jeanie) Han, explaining that in Asia, once girls were using Line, boys followed – and then this young “hip” user base helped bring in older users “like a domino effect.”

“People, especially young folks, are really adopting our stickers,” she says. “The ratio of people who are buying things online like our stickers is actually quite high in the U.S., as well as the people who are using our games inside our platform relative to the total number of users, so we’re quite optimistic in terms of our market in the U.S.” — Techcrunch, March 2013


The crowd lining up tonight was about 2:1 female to male, which seems in line with LINE’s targeting strategy. There were a few people who definitely looked over 40, and everyone present was walking out with stuffed toys, diaries, notebooks, plastic folders, tote bags, mugs, badges and the like, all emblazoned with Brown, Cony, Moon, Leonard, Sally, James, and other characters I can name because I see and employ their images in chat conversations on a daily basis. LINE is lovable, obsessionable. Few others are by design.

Against Facebook Messenger’s 200M monthly active users, LINE is said to have virtually the same MAU (out of 400M registered accounts). In comparison, WeChat (dominant in China) has 355M MAU, and WhatsApp has over 500M. I don’t consider WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger users to be the same thing2, and LINE has the greatest growth potential outside of its home country, especially in Asian countries with an affinity for Japanese culture, whereas the Chinese WeChat is likely to have a harder time. I’m pretty bullish about LINE’s success, even if their apps have a lot to improve on. For the record, LINE also reports significant revenues — $338M in 2013 — versus about $200M for KakaoTalk and $20M for WhatsApp.


  1. Within minutes of our arrival, I overheard a mom asking her two teenaged daughters, “What’s this about?”, to which they replied, “it’s kind of like WhatsApp.” 
  2. For one thing, WhatsApp is not functionally part of a platform, and probably won’t be merging with Facebook’s in the near future for various reasons. All the other messaging networks are at some stage of offering content, ecommerce, games, and enhanced communication services such as video-calling. 

ArtScience Museum, Nov 2014

Some iPhone photos from a recent visit. I’d been meaning to see the Eames one for months, but it’s always a bit hard to get out to the Marina Bay Sands because there isn’t a lot to do afterwards if you’re not in the mood for an expensive meal or drinks.

There are quite a few pieces in the Eames area, including some original interactive activities from an educational exhibit they designed, although the gallery layout leaves a little to be desired. A roughshod detail here, an odd pathway there, and lots of furniture out of reach, labeled “do not touch”, leaves you empty;  it’s only at the very end when you sink into a permitted Ottoman that you feel the humanity of their designs.

The Chanel Black Jacket photo exhibition is much more enjoyable to explore, because there’s nothing between you and the content on display.

••••

Here are the official exhibition summaries:

Explore the life and work of Charles and Ray Eames, the most famous couple in design.

Most known for their timeless furniture creations, their influence and innovation extended far beyond that into architecture, exhibition design, toy making and film.

CHANEL’s photographic exhibition dedicated to Karl Lagerfeld’s book “The Little Black Jacket: CHANEL’s classic revisited by Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld” opens in Singapore, joining a new stage of the exhibition that underlines CHANEL’s values of creativity and modernity.

Discover the exhibition that pays tribute to CHANEL’s little black jacket. Through over a hundred photographs the jacket is adapted and worn differently by some of today’s greatest personalities in contemporary culture. Slipped on by the French singer, Vanessa Paradis, transformed into a headdress for the American actress, Sarah Jessica Parker, or adapted to Alice Dellal’s neo-punk look – this fashion masterpiece can adapt to any style.

Tandoori Corner

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Tried out an Indian restaurant near work today on the occasion of a visiting coworker’s farewell (amusingly, he’s going back to India and another Indian coworker felt it appropriate to suggest this place for lunch — we suggested he was feeling homesick himself).

It’s on Boon Tat street and quite good, although it’s probably best to come closer to 2pm; we stood outside for close to half an hour. I had the chicken tikka which was mildly spiced (if you’re a wimp like me and like to avoid discomfort).

Trophies as a Gift Idea

This is a bit of a long shot, but if you live in Singapore and need a unique gift, or just so happen to actually need an unironic, non-jokey trophy, consider Alpha Plus at Queensway Shopping Center.

We needed a silly trophy made for our departing colleague and creative partner, Christian, and they were able to turn it around in about 2 days for a fair price. You could probably make yourself one, just for kicks.

All manner of trophies and bludgeoning objects
All manner of trophies and bludgeoning objects
Several inside jokes involved
Several inside jokes involved here

Tricks & Cider

About two weeks ago, I kinda realized that two people I knew online were in a band together, and preparing to put out their first EP. I visited their website, bought the record when it came out, and ended up seeing them live at the Esplanade last Friday. Hear for yourself through the embedded player below.

In addition to Bandcamp, you can get the 5-song collection on iTunes and Spotify.

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At the Esplanade Outdoor Theater

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Lunchtime concert on Raffles Green