Saturday, August 18, 2012

San Francisco Time Lapse

While lazying in my room being a couch potato, I felt pity for my camera as it lays by the side without any action. It would be a waste if I don't do anything with it after I carried the heavy equipment all the way from Singapore. So I propped up the tripod and set the camera up by the window. It turned out to be an interesting result. Here's a time lapse of sunset over San Francisco and the coming of fog taken from Canon 5D Mk2. Credits to Edward Maya for producing such an awesome music used in this video. Title of the song is Love Story.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mini Travel Log: Hong Kong, China (3)

I couldn't believe that I'm seeing a perfect clear blue skies over Hong Kong on my arrival. For many many years and days, this city has been choked with extreme haze and polluted air. Many have blamed the polluted air coming from nearby China cities like Shenzhen. For the first time, I managed to snap clear pictures of Hong Kong city skyline at the harbor. But there's an old saying about "calm before the storm". I left Hong Kong one day later on my way to San Francisco. Without everyone's notice, a huge storm had been brewing over the China Sea. It churned out such a powerful typhoon that for the first time in decades, it was labelled a Category 10 typhoon which is the highest warning that carries a mandatory citywide shutdown. Typhoon Vicente, as they called it, swept ferociously over Hong Kong and into Guangdong area, wrecking massive havoc and damage. Many flights were grounded in Hong Kong and many more were diverted away. I was flying over the North Pacific coming back to Hong Kong when the typhoon made landfall. I totally had no grasp at all over the severity of the storm when presented with just a number statement of Category 10. But a look over the weather report, it is impossible to land the plane in such bad conditions. Eventually, the plane was diverted to Seoul, Korea. Once the storm had passed, the plane finally took off again and landed safely in Hong Kong. For the next 2 days, I spent most time indoors as rain continued to fall. A good time too for me to catch up on sleep from my previous 30 hour awake-work ordeal.

Click on the image for picture gallery

Related link: Mini Travel Log: Hong Kong, China (2)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Hong Kong, China (1)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mini Travel Log: Tokyo, Japan (4)

The newly opened shopping mall called the Diver City in Odaiba Tokyo is the best of them all. I finally had the chance to visit this mall after seeing it being built since last year. For the lady shoppers, this will be their best shopping place while for the Gundam anime followers, this is their shrine and heaven. This mall packs all the branded labels under one roof. Especially for the Burberry Blue label lovers which can only be bought in Japan, you're not limited only to Roppongi district now. There are many more US brand outlets here although the price may not be the cheapest compared to the States. Now for the Gundam fans, hear ye, hear ye! THIS IS one shrine which you MUST visit if you come to Tokyo. Everything under the sun about Gundam is located here. The life sized Gundam greets you at the entrance. Every hour, it will come to life while spouting some silly smokes. Don't get overly excited at the mobile Gundam shop beside the statue. The real jewel is located at the top floor of this mall. Almost the entire top floor is dedicated to Gundam comprising of galleries, Gundam experience theaters, and most importantly, the store that sells almost complete range of top grade Gundam models from all the series, but only at a fraction of price compared to anywhere in the world. This IS the place for you to buy and stock up your supplies if you want to build an arsenal of Gundam models in your home.

Click on the image for picture gallery

Related link: Mini Travel Log: Tokyo, Japan (3)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Tokyo, Japan (2)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Tokyo, Japan (1)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Mini Travel Log: Amsterdam, Holland (3)

Weather was not very good this time around. So I didn't do any excursion trip and stayed in the city. I bought a 1-day public transport ticket to go around the city. I walked into few diamond museums selling overpriced diamonds, a few flea markets around the city, saw the one and only windmill left in the city and ended up the day with ice cold beers in the Heineken Museum.

Click on the image for picture gallery

Related link: Mini Travel Log: Amsterdam, Holland (2)
Related link: Tulip Mania: Spring in Holland
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Amsterdam, Holland (1)

Friday, August 03, 2012

Home Sweet Home: Part 1

My wife and I just bought our first home and currently in the midst of renovating the place. We had gone through so many processes and important decision makings that I thought it will be a good idea to share our experience here to help others who plan to buy their dream homes without ending up in a financial ruin.

Owning a dream house is every couple's dream towards setting up a happy family. However it is definitely not easy and cheap to own one in the first place. In this tightly controlled public housing country, many rules are in place to prevent speculation. Unless you are rich and can afford private properties, you have to be contented with the public housing called the HDB flats. However, to distinguish between a citizen and non-citizen, many barriers are in place to prevent non-citizens from buying new flats which are cheaper than condominiums. Moreover, non-citizens do not get any grant or financial help. Therefore we have to buy from the resale market which basically means second hand flats aged 5 years or more. In general, a unit usually aged more than 10 years in mature estates. Owning such old flat is not cheap which can run close to half a million dollar. Banks will only loan up to 80% of the property value. So just like everyone else, we have to slough and work hard to save that initial down payment of 20%; unlike citizens who get many housing options, grants and financial help when they buy their first homes.

Just a rough idea on how much cash you need in hand if you plan to buy a flat. For today's average market rate of $450,000 4-room flat, you need to have more than $100,000 cash for that 20% down-payment plus other miscellaneous fees (most importantly the "legalized" cash-over-valuation or in short "under-table" money paid directly to the seller on top of the selling price; easily around $10,000-$60,000). Of this 20% down-payment, you can use all your CPF monies for half of it. Another half which is $50,000 or more will be in the form of cash. For both working couple, you may need to work and save hard for the next 3-5 years just to afford that initial down payment!

Now after paying all the down payment and exorbitant COVs, I ended up with no money left for renovation and furniture. Since my parents are no Li Ka-shing (HK tycoon), I had to look for alternative ways to get some money. No one could lend me money so I turned to the banks once more. I found out banks offer Renovation Loan package. So far, RHB and Maybank offer the most competitive rates. Each person can loan up to $30,000 and if both working couple apply separately, you can obtain loan of $30,000 each to a total of $60,000 or maximum renovation value as quoted by your interior designer; whichever is lower. So the best way is to approach your designer, ask him to quote you an expensive renovation package with many extras which you can take out later; probably over $10,000 extra. With this over-quote, you'll be able to obtain more cash than you need for your renovation. With the extra $10,000++, you can use this cash to buy furniture. But a word of CAUTION here. Renovation loans are not cheap and they have higher interest rate. So please do not loan too much which you cannot afford to pay back later. If you are really short on cash, then forget about money to buy furniture. Just buy the basic first and delay your house warming to later month; where you can save up some money to buy furniture that are missing.

After passing the most difficult financial hurdle, the next big hurdle is choosing the right designer with the right price and right designs for the home. Although difficult, we had fun in designing the home to our hearts' content. It is best to have some designs in the mind first before approaching any designers. Home decor magazines are a good way to start off the creative thinking. Do not be shy to copy the designs you like from the magazines. From there, you can tweak and fine tune to your heart's desire. If you are a computer wizard or just being adventurous, you can even download a free copy of SketchUp and translate your imagination into drawings. The next step is read the reno forums or ask around from your friends who had done their house reno recently for a copy of their quotation. By scouring the internet and words of recommendation, you can distinguish the good and the bad designers. You'll also be able to have a rough estimate of each type of work and material. As a rule of thumb, this is the price estimate that I can provide from my experience:

$60/ft Solid surface for kitchen worktable
$100/ft of Granite Top for kitchen worktable
$100-$130/ft for kitchen cabinets
$200-$250/ft for bedroom wardrobe cabinets
$100-$150/ft for TV console cabinets or normal cabinets
$110/ft for Vanity
$3/sq ft Tiles

Now armed with enough knowledge, you can march off to find designers for quotations. Do not be shy and get as many quotations as possible from different designer companies. Most items listed on top are normally what is being quoted. But there are many extra miscellaneous items that will be quoted if a designer wants to "fleece" you. By just comparing different quotations, you'll be able to find out some totally out of place and nonsense items in the quotations. Do not be fooled by all these small valued items. When you sum up the total, it can make a huge difference as much as $10,000.

As for my experience, I have engaged D'Trenzo as my interior designer and also renovation works. What I'm going to share below is purely based on my experience and dealings with the company. So I cannot guarantee the same experience for everyone else. After reading through many reno forums on the internet, D'Trenzo was mentioned in quite a number of posts by fellow members who had engaged this firm before. As far as I remember, all were positive reviews on the price and quality of work done by this firm. So armed with many other quotations, I approached this firm. True enough the price quoted by this firm is the most honest in my opinion. Without hesitation, I granted them the contract for my house renovation on the spot. I provided them with a few rough sketches and conveyed some design ideas. They came up with the 3D drawings of almost exactly what we wanted and they were always opened to changes from time to time until we were both satisfied with the final drawings.

Click on the image for picture gallery

Some people may ask why not engage contractor instead of paying a premium price to interior designer. After much research, I discover savings are probably around 10-15%. For my first home, I will not risk putting everything on the hands of contractor which cannot guarantee the designs and results. Sure there are some very good contractors out there, but finding one is very difficult. And many contractors do not offer drawings. Everything is just through conversation, so he may not be able to build what we want. As for interior designers who provide 3D drawings, the final product will be most likely 80% correct, giving us peace of mind during the whole renovation process and not having to worry of wrong end products.

As of now, our home is still in the midst of renovation. So far so good with on-schedule work. Fingers crossed, I hope this good experience continues until the completion of renovation. After the completion, I will come back to share more of my experience with this designer firm, be it good or bad. Stay tuned...Home Reno: Part 2 (Completed)

Click on the image for picture gallery

Mini Travel Log: Auckland, New Zealand (5)

Devonport is a small town across the Auckland city harbor with its own charm and character. This sleepy town is mostly deserted during the daytime as people sail across the harbor to work in the city. By nightfall, this town springs into life when its inhabitants return from work. The city folks also love to drive over to this town to enjoy international cuisines in many of the restaurants. Two volcanic hills tower prominently on both ends of the town, offering scenic view of Auckland city and surroundings. WW2 era bunkers and guns can be explored on the hills. There is a nice long stretch of beach dotted by beachfront homes on the east side of the town. The Navy Museum displays huge collections of naval artifacts particularly from the WW2 era. Entrance is free.

Click on the image for picture gallery

Related link: Mini Travel Log: Auckland, New Zealand (4)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Auckland, New Zealand (3)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Auckland, New Zealand (2)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Auckland, New Zealand (1)