Holiday classes: Singaporean travellers pursue offbeat hobbies while on vacation

Travellers are pursuing offbeat hobbies while on vacation and packing classes into their itineraries

Mr James Goh (right) enjoys learning from Mr Hidenori Ashihara (left), head of Ashihara Karate Kaikan on Matsuyama island in Japan. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF JAMES GOH
Mr James Goh (right) enjoys learning from Mr Hidenori Ashihara (left), head of Ashihara Karate Kaikan on Matsuyama island in Japan. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF JAMES GOH
Mr Edmund Tan (middle) with an instructor from RSR Nurburg (left) and another car enthusiast on the Nurburgring race track in Germany. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF EDMUND TAN
Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, teaches students to make gelato using ingredients ranging from fruit to alchohol. -- PHOTO: CARPIGIANI GELATO UNIVERSITY
Ms Michelle Ngiam with Australian pole dancer Bailey Hart, an instructor at the Western Australia Pole Camp which she attended in Perth in January. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF MICHELLE NGIAM
Ms Claire Yong watching instructor Luis Da Silva demonstrate bouquet arrangement at the McQueens Flower School in London. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF CLAIRE YONG

Forget run-of-the-mill cooking or art classes. Singaporean travellers these days have varied hobbies and are heading overseas to hone their skills.

Pole-dancing enthusiast Deborah Dayani, for instance, headed to Sydney earlier this year to attend pole-dancing workshops by top professionals.

"It was my first time to Sydney. While I wanted to have a beach holiday, I also wanted to take the opportunity to learn from the instructors there and experience the Sydney pole culture," says the 29-year-old public relations manager.

Mr Robin Yap, a 35-year travel industry veteran and the non-executive chairman of The Travel Corporation, a collection of international travel and tourism companies, says many travellers also head to destinations traditionally associated with their hobbies in pursuit of an authentic experience.

"Learning karate in Japan is like learning from the source, while learning to make gelato from a charming Italian master is an added motivation," says the 57- year-old. "In the same way, many Westerners travel to China to learn Shaolin gongfu because they feel that learning from a Shaolin monk is more authentic."

Mr Allan Chia, 52, head of the marketing programme at SIM University's School of Business, says that such two-in-one trips appeal to time-starved Singaporeans.

He says: "Time is precious and this enables Singaporeans to both travel and pursue their hobbies in one trip."

From karate to floral arrangement, SundayLife! talks to five Singaporeans who have taken their hobbies to the next level by brushing up their skills while on holiday.


When Ms Claire Yong took a trip to London in September 2011 to visit her brother, she decided to turn her holiday into a chance to pursue a long-term interest.

The 28-year-old communications consultant signed up for a week-long course at the McQueens Flower School. The school is attached to the flagship store of McQueens, one of London's premier florists regularly used by five-star hotels, designer labels and fashion magazines for their photo shoots.

"I used to do it for fun. I'd go to a florist here, such as Far East Flora, buy some flowers and start arranging them," says Ms Yong, who is married. "I knew there were a lot of really good floral designers in London, so when I went there on holiday, I thought I'd take the chance to take up flower arrangement more seriously."

She did her research and registered online at McQueens before leaving for the trip.

London was the ideal choice, as the flowers that florists there work with are cheaper, fresher and come in more varieties than the ones available here, says Ms Yong.

She adds: "McQueens also does the floral arrangement for a lot of high-profile corporate events, so I was excited to watch and learn how it was done."

Her course at McQueens was the first time she had attended a professional course on flowers and she was the only Singaporean in a group of 12.

Classes ran from 9am to 4pm every day and included lunch. The course, called Introduction To Flower Design, cost £1,395 (S$2,922).

Classes involved learning about different flower varieties, bouquet arrangement and hands-on experience helping out with events and delivery orders.

She adds that she enjoyed the opportunity to work with fresh varieties of flowers she cannot find in Singapore.

"The more common roses in Singapore, for example, are usually from Vietnam, China or India, but the roses they use in London are bigger, fuller English roses," she says.

The hydrangeas, too, are of a higher quality and last longer than the ones here, she notes.

Practising on real orders was also exciting, she recalls. She was there during a particularly busy season for bouquet orders and deliveries.

"It helped us learn more about modern techniques of flower arranging, what the trends are these days and what customers want," she says.

One of the new techniques she learnt was how to build a "flower tree", a small tree made entirely of freshly cut flowers, which is usually used as a festive decoration.

She hopes to one day be able to do a longer, month-long course at the same school, as there are still many flower arrangement techniques she wants to learn.

"I would love to learn how to put together bigger structures, such as flower arches, for big events," she says, adding that she may look into floral arrangement as a sideline career.


You probably know what a fitness boot camp entails, but have you heard of a pole camp?

For business consultant Michelle Ngiam, a pole camp was where she spent her holiday in January, to brush up on her pole-dancing skills.

The 26-year-old attended the Western Australia Pole Camp in Perth for three days and thought the $2,000 she spent on the entire trip was worth every cent.

"While the pole-dancing scene in Singapore has started to evolve and has definitely gained some recognition in recent years, it's still pretty new. We also don't have many guest instructors - professional pole dancers who tour the world giving workshops - visiting Singapore," she says. "That's why I decided to go abroad to seek them out."

Since she picked up pole dancing three years ago, she has taken classes with more than 20 professional pole dancers, in Bali, Hong Kong, Perth, Sydney and Taipei.

She started by trying to fit in drop-in sessions at pole-dancing studios whenever she was abroad. "Every studio is different and I like to get the full experience of what it's like to be under the tutelage of different teachers. Sometimes, I choose a private lesson where I can learn various tricks from a particular instructor. Other times, I book a class and follow the routines and tricks."

In pole-dancing lingo, "tricks" are poses or stances that one strikes on the pole. For instance, the "jade" trick involves doing a horizontal split on the pole while one hangs upside down, holding onto the pole using only an arm and one's hips.

At the Western Australia Pole Camp, she attended 15 workshops with different instructors over three days. These included international pole-dancing champions such as Anastasia Skukhtorova from Russia, American Steven Retchless and Australian Michelle Shimmy.

Studying under Skukhtorova was awe- inspiring, says Ms Ngiam, who is single. "She has a huge following and she's a great and patient teacher. She's one of the most inspiring dancers out there with amazing flexibility and strong pole skills."

Learning from professionals abroad is useful because they are all known for different tricks and choreography, she says.

She enjoys pole dancing as she likes the satisfaction after a particularly gruelling session.

"It's physically tough and a lot of it is mental - you have to believe in yourself. I definitely get a workout each time but, more than that, I feel very satisfied with what I have managed to do," she says.

When she started pole dancing, she was nervous to tell people about the hobby.

"Initially, a lot of people would ask me why I was doing what strippers did," she says. "But as I got better and didn't mind showing off the moves, I could demonstrate what I did and people realised it's not like a stripper at all. It takes a lot of core strength. These days, more people have friends who are taking pole classes too."

Pole dancing is also very dynamic, she points out. "There's always something to learn and new tricks are being invented all the time."

There are many different kinds of pole dancing, including classical, contemporary and pole sport. Ms Ngiam says: "It's good to be able to expose myself to different types so that I can learn and create my own style. Through my lessons overseas, I have found my individual style and I know what my strengths and weaknesses are."

She estimates that she has spent nearly $20,000 on travelling and attending pole classes abroad so far. "It's a pretty expensive hobby, but I really love it.

Japan and South Korea are next on her list of places to check out for their pole- dancing scene.

"Hopefully, I'll get to visit studios in Europe and the United States in the future," she adds. "That's a lot of places to visit, but I'm expecting these trips to last me a lifetime."

However, she may no longer have to travel so often as the pole-dancing scene here develops.

"Some of my favourite pole dancers, such as Marion Crame and Oona Kivela, came to Singapore during the International Pole Championship last year, as we were the host country and I took workshops with them," she recalls.

She hopes to do pole dancing for many more years, noting that there are professional pole dancers in their 60s. "I would love to do it as long as my body and muscles are able to take it."


A visit to Italy as a teenager left Ms Stella Lai with a lifelong love of gelato.

"I was in Florence with my family and I remember I got three scoops of gelato on a cone because I had never had it before," the 38-year-old graphic designer recalls. "It was melting so fast but it was so good."

She decided to take her love of the icy treat to the next level when she signed up for a four-week course at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, in October last year.

She found the school, set up by ice cream-machine maker Carpigiani in 2003, during an online search for the best places to learn to make gelato. Classes there are taught in Italian, English, French, German, Dutch, Japanese and Mandarin. The school offers short-term courses in making gelato and chocolates, as well as how to go about setting up your own gelato store.

Ms Lai, who is single, says learning to make ice cream or gelato was something she had always wanted to do. She decided on gelato because she preferred its taste.

"Gelato is smoother and made with less cream and fat. It has less air in it and a more intense flavour. I really dislike some types of ice cream where you can taste the fat in your mouth," she says.

Italy was the obvious choice to learn how to make the treat as it is the birthplace of gelato and also where she had first tasted it. The four-week course cost her $7,000, including flights and accommodation.

At first, she thought the classes would be like learning to cook.

"I didn't know anything about making ice cream before I went. I thought if it was not sweet enough, I'd just add more sugar, but it's actually a complicated chemistry," she says. "I felt like I was back in school, having science lessons, but it was all really interesting."

To her, the best part was when students got to come up with their own recipes.

"That was the most fun part. We experimented with different flavours and I made one with lemon, lime and black pepper that I found quite pleasant. We also made other flavours that many people didn't like, such as anchovy."

Even the recipes that did not work out provided valuable information.

"We were supposed to make one with Guinness stout beer and Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine, and the trick was to get the proportions right. Unfortunately, mine turned out too icy. But after that, I knew how to improve," she says.

In her final week there, she did an internship in the university's own gelateria and laboratory with two other students and an instructor, who had worked in the gelato business for more than 30 years.

"Every morning, we had to prepare 14 flavours of gelato for real customers who came to the school's gelataria in the afternoons," she says. "It was very exciting to work to meet the deadlines and I felt like I was working in an actual gelato shop."

She dreams of opening her own gelato shop in Singapore one day.

"Ice cream makes people happy and I would love to try to bring happiness to people through gelato."


He loves cars and driving fast, but the roads in Singapore offer few opportunities for him to indulge in some thrills and spills.

So like other fast-car lovers here, Mr Edmund Tan, a regional marketing manager, has been heading across the Causeway to the racetrack in Sepang almost every weekend for the past decade.

Two years ago, however, he achieved the dream of many motorsports hobbyists: driving in Nurburgring, a famous racetrack south of Cologne, Germany.

"That's the track everyone wants to go to," says the 39-year-old. "It's a very old F1 race track with a north loop that was built in the 1920s. Its history still attracts people. A lot of manufacturers still go there to test their cars and the elevation of the track ranges from zero to 300m, unlike the roads in Singapore and Malaysia, which are flat."

He signed up two months in advance with RSR Nurburg, a school run by former Ferrari test driver Ron Simons.

The school rents out cars such as Ferraris and their instructors, all professional race-car drivers, take students onto the Nurburgring track for half a day. After teaching students some tips and tricks and guiding them, students are free to drive the car around the track.

While Mr Tan drives a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution here and in Sepang, he rented a BMW M3 in Nurburgring.

The father of three spent a week there, with three days on the track and the other days watching other drivers. He took his rented car out for a full Grand Prix distance of 320km on one of the days.

Renting a professional racing car there costs about $8,000 for a full track day. In all, he spent about $15,000 after factoring in flights and accommodation.

The prohibitive cost is one reason he did not pursue his motorsports hobby overseas previously.

The tips the instructors there gave him were useful advice he would not have learnt otherwise, he says.

"For example, when driving along a long, straight part of the track, most people concentrate hard on driving because you're going at such a high speed. But the instructor told me to relax, take my mind off the track while going on a long straight and to look at the mirror, see where everyone else is around me and compose myself for the next turn," he says.

He adds: "When you're driving at a high speed, what saps you is the concentration. So the instructors gave us tips on where we can relax so we don't lose so much energy over the long track."

He adds that while he used to feel very tired after completing six laps around a track, he managed to complete a full Grand Prix distance of 56 laps using the instructors' tips.

He hopes to try out all the famous racetracks of the world. Next on his wishlist is the Tsukuba Circuit in Japan.

His wife is supportive of his hobby and accompanied him on his recent trip to Germany, although she did not want to get behind the wheel of a fast car.

He admits that "anyone who drives fast gets into accidents". It was a bad crash 10 years ago that led him to take his hobby more seriously.

He explains: "The incident taught me to be more aware of the vehicle's characteristics and that was when I got serious about driving."

Hobbyists like him do not describe what they do as "racing" but as "tracking", he says.

"It's not technically racing, but just trying to improve your timing on a circuit and taking the car out and pushing it to its limits," he says.

Besides his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, he also has a Honda Fit which he uses to drive his family around in Singapore. He has three sons aged eight, three and one. He says he is a different driver in each of his cars.

"I never drive fast when my family is in the car - I'd rather be safe. It's only when I'm in a controlled environment, such as a track, that I do my thing."


For karate enthusiast James Goh, there is no better place to improve his skills than the birthplace of his beloved martial art.

The 46-year-old IT manager travelled to the headquarters of the Ashihara Karate Kaikan on Matsuyama island in Japan last year to train under the head of the karate school.

Ashihara Karate is taught in more than 160 branches in Japan and 170 branches in other countries, including Singapore. The current head of the school, Mr Hidenori Ashihara, is the son of its late founder, Hideyuki Ashihara.

Mr Goh, who holds a black belt, is an instructor and the branch chief of Ashihara Karate in Singapore.

He benefited from a similar stay in Matsuyama in 1996 and made the recent trip to pick up new techniques.

"It's like a regular karate school, except that all the students who attend are black-belt holders and you get to learn from the head of the school himself," says Mr Goh.

The father of two says he started karate classes 30 years ago at his father's urging.

"I was a sickly teenager and my father advised me to take up martial arts to build up my strength," he says. His health began to improve and he was hooked on the training. He achieved his black belt in 1988.

While the layman might think he has reached the pinnacle of the martial art, he says earning a black belt is "the true beginning" of one's life in karate.

This is why he feels the need to further his skills and knowledge abroad.

"There is a lot more to learn after you achieve a black belt. From the instructors at the headquarters of Ashihara Karate Kaikan, we learn more techniques, both traditional and modern, of handling certain attacks," he says. "And it's not just about executing these techniques, but executing them in a way that uses minimal effort to overcome your opponent."

After the instructors demonstrate the techniques, students pair up to practise these advanced moves on one another, he adds.

He spent four days there, attending a 21/2-hour class every evening with 30 other students from all over the world.

"Hidenori Ashihara would be there to explain techniques in detail, but he also had very senior instructors to help with the drills," says Mr Goh.

The classes he attended at the school were free as he has been its member since 1987, paying yearly dues of US$15 (S$18.70) to maintain an international membership. He spent more than $2,000 on his flights and accommodation and spent another three days in Tokyo on his own.

He says he wanted to train in Japan as it is where karate originated, and the way the Japanese train in the martial art is very different from the way local practitioners train.

"Their mentality is just different. They have a lot more commitment, passion and focus, and they train at a very high standard," he says.

He adds that practitioners of Ashihara Karate in Japan train every day, with schools there offering three classes a day.

"In Singapore, it's hard to do that because we don't have space. We can rent space at community clubs only twice a week. I try to train at least twice a week."

While he was there, he says he saw a very clear difference in the way people there trained.

"They are really committed to training daily despite their work and school schedules. I have been trying to closely follow the techniques I learnt there."

He plans to make a trip back there at the end of this year or at the start of next year.

"I hope to take my wife and children along to give them a feeling of what karate training in Japan is like," he says.

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