Had people watching

been a competitive sport, the shelves in my house would be heaving under the weight of trophies. It’s true! Given the bonafide introvert I am, observing the world keenly from inside my bubble of solitude has always been my schtick, perfected with years of practice starting with those long train journeys my family took during school holidays when I’d keep myself endlessly entertained while my sister and parents nodded off as soon as the train moved.

Between looking out the window and reading or pretending to read, I’d scrutinize fellow passengers, examining their face, expression, posture, hairstyle, attire, demeanour, language, idiosyncrasies, almost anything I could see, hear, smell or touch and build colourful profiles in my mind and fine tune them as I gathered more information. If someone snacked, I’d take a peek at what they were eating, if someone spoke I’d try to discern the accent or diction, if someone read, well, you can tell a lot from the kind of book/magazine a person reads. By the time my parents woke I could single out the person most likely to be trusted with our bags while we took a trip to the toilet.

It wasn’t just entertaining and edifying (from a sociological perspective) but a great way to feed a curious mind. It still is.

Replace the stifling railway cabins with university dorms, doctor’s chamber, social gatherings, long queues at taxi stands and now cafes – my  venue of choice for practicing flânerie with all the flair it deserves.

This is where I must tip my hat to the French for coining a word for ‘sauntering aimlessly’ but (mind you!) not mindlessly and thank early 19th century flâneur writers such as Balzac and Zola who strolled the grand boulevards of Paris actively observing passersby for raising a seemingly frivolous practice of ‘people watching’, the prerogative of the indolent, up the lexicographical and social ladder to an art form even.

And to cultivate this pursuit in the same spirit, this 21st century denizen has picked up sketchbooks, pens, watercolours, crayons and what not.  Observing manners and mores of people can be amusing but immortalising them in drawings is certainly more gratifying. All these drawings done on location capture fleeting moments that I, the flaneuse had witnessed on several occasions over the last month.

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(L) This old man had ordered an incredible number of pastries which he finished at lightening speed before his wife ambled into the cafe. All she saw was a cup of coffee on the table.  (R) My husband reading on his kindle while I was drawing.

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(L) This bald guy in green had a very difficult discussion with the woman sitting opposite him. After she stormed out, he looked extremely despondent.

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These three guys who I drew around my husband (to keep him company on the page) were having a heated political discussion about the relation between China and Hong Kong.

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(L) This old guy wearing very colourful clothes and a funky hairstyle with spikes seemed like someone who did not want to age at all.

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(L) A little girl making her daddy feed her soft toy before she agrees to take a bite! (R) My husband reading a Jo Nesbo thriller.

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(R) A Starbucks employee on a cigarette break. He looked exhausted and seemed to be contemplating something.

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(L) A studious guy with the most innocent smile had three fingers missing from his left hand, but he couldn’t care less. (R) From his formal attire, this guy looked like someone straight from work winding down at the cafe. He was tapping really hard on his phone screen.

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Two intense gamers who looked liked they were in a serious relationship

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(L) I couldn’t hear what she was saying but whatever it was, she was saying it with plenty of gusto. Don’t miss the clenched fist!

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(R) The cafe I walked into had at least 30 people plugged in to their laptops, tapping away at the keyboard with a drink on the side. They looked like corporate clones.

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This guy had really tiny hands which seemed to have a life of their own. His audience (whom I didn’t get to draw) were at the receiving end of his frantic gesticulations.

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(R) The girl was reading, writing, consulting a book, listening to music, checking her phone drinking latte all at the same time.

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She said : “So if I die, you get 2 million?”. He said, “..Yes, that’s right, in Singapore dollars”.

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Spied upon two guys with pompous hairstyles. They had an incredible number of wires coming out of their various devices.

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She threw away every bit of trash on her table into the garbage can and wiped the table clean before leaving. It says a lot about the person.

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(L) This hip grandma was fawning over her grandchild the entire time. She was wearing green eye shadows and just before leaving she touched up her makeup, put on red lipstick and gave me a thumbs up for drawing her. (R) A guy who kept fidgeting and sweating in his chair until he couldn’t take it anymore and left.

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Just two guys chilling at our neighbourhood Starbucks.

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People eating lunch at a food court on Orchard Road. And since we’re in SE Asia, you see a a lot of noodle bowls and chopsticks.

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A guy wolfing down his breakfast.

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Ending this series with the sketch of this very cute grandma I found dozing at a cafe yesterday. She was waiting for her granddaughters to finish shopping and fetch her.

 

 

 

 

These Shophouses

had me at hello. Although that’s true for most shophouses as far as I’m concerned. But Bukit Pasoh Road is something else with its row of spectacularly bejewelled mid-20th century buildings that have been painstakingly refurbished by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority).

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“They have it all, don’t they?”, said our guide alluding to the ornate architectural style of these shophouses called Late Shophouse Style or Late Straits Eclectic Style that became popular between 1900 – 1940s. Of all the six different architectural styles China town’s shophouses can be grouped into, this one is the most spectacular with decorative stuccowork on everything from architraves, cornices and pilasters to even brackets, dramatic iron grilles of the balconies, wooden louvered windows and so much more.

Bukit Pason Shophouses

As a part of the ongoing Singapore Heritage Fest 2016 (29April – 15 May),  URA had organized a heritage walk in Chinatown in collaboration with the Friends of the Museum, focussing on the Bukit Pasoh Area. We started a little after 9 am from the URA building on Maxwell Street, passed by the Maxwell Food Centre and the Fairfield Methodist Church, then crossed the road towards the imposing Jinrikisha Station on the opposite, walked along Neil Road, across Duxton Hill and finally reached Bukit Pasoh Road around 11. Along the way, we stopped at several junctures to hear fascinating stories about the architecture and history of these places from our guide who seemed incredibly adept at bringing the past alive.

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A section of Bukit Pasoh Road as seen from the roof top of Gan Clan Singapore. 

If no one was minding the scorching May heat, it was because of her muscular narrative chops . “Why do you think these shophouses have backlanes?, she asked and matched the blank stares with another interesting fact.”..so the night soil collector could visit each night and discreetly pick up the buckets filled with waste from each house without disturbing the owner”. Judging from the look of surprise on the faces followed by immediate relief considering our much advanced living conditions, I guessed there would be newfound admiration for flush toilets at least within this group of participants.

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My painting at the ‘Sketches of Da Po – Old and New Chinatown’ exhibition at Gan Clan Singapore

“Bukit is a Malay word for hill and Pasoh stands for Alibaba pots (earthenware pots) “, said our guide. Apparently in 1846, Bukit Pasoh was recorded to be 1281 feet in elevation and was home to many 19th century kilns that produced these pots used in homes to store water and rice. This street was also home to many clan associations (which were basically societies that helped 19th century immigrants from China to settle in Singapore and find their footing) , some of which still survive today and in one such building on 18 Bukit Pasoh Road called Gan Clan Singapore (formerly known as The Gan Clan Association) there’s an art exhibition happening on the 4th floor where one of my sketches is sharing space with many beautiful pieces of work, all based on the theme Da Po – Old and New Chinatown.

The exhibition is open from 10 am till 5pm, until 18th May (Closed on 14th May and Sundays) and is interesting to visit because there’s an incredible array of drawing styles on display, sometimes of one particular building or scene, proving how different people perceive and express the same things differently.

Don’t leave without trying the scrumptious blueberry muffin with chia seeds at The LoKal cafe just round the corner, at the intersection of Bukit Pasoh Rd and Neil Road. Here’s the sketch –

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The LoKal Cafe 

 

 

 

 

 

What if

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…I had a key that could open my head so I could put in and take out anything I wanted? This bewitching thought that I’ve been mulling over came to me from something I read two weeks ago. In Vol. 2 of Joe Hill’s epic comic book series called Locke and Key, one of the characters named Kinsley dug out all her fears and the ability to cry while her older brother Tyler jammed in textbooks to ace school exams!

 

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If I were to play along and assume that the lid on my head was off, what would I put in? After a bout of gruelling self-assessment I came up with the answer which believe it or not is ‘nothing’. Yes, I’d pass it up, coz I can’t bear sabotaging the masochistic sense of achievement I derive from learning anything new. I revel in that sort of thing. But, that’s just me.

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On the other hand there’s a lot I want to get rid of. All kinds of fears starting from facing a blank page to a room full of people at a party. A long standing one has been that of drawing people. I sort of stiffen when faced with this task and the lack of spirit shows in the drawing and then these insipid drawings gnaw at my courage to start afresh. Hence the beguiling temptation of this fantasy key.

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Fantasy it may be, but what if it’s also a metaphor for our willingness to open our minds? What if a single turn of this key can unlock our courage to explore new ideas, challenge our beliefs and make mistakes, learn from them and then build up confidence? I put the key to test. In other words I started drawing even more people and in a style that felt most natural to me and decided to focus only on the process, enjoy it without worrying about results.

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These 5 drawings above are the fruits of my dogged efforts and reflect my altered mindset. I used watercolours and crayons to make the process even more exciting and developed this gestural style that I’m growing quite fond of and wish to explore further. Rest assured there’s going to be one overworked key in this house!

 

 

The go-to subject

 

is an essential element in a sketch artist’s life.

It is something or someone that we mindlessly and repetitively draw all the time, an easily accessible model that has offered itself unequivocally to Art. I have friends who fill their sketchbook’s pages with drawings of inanimate objects such as vegetables, dinosaur toys, shoes and crockeries and this arrangement is simple because a potato couldn’t possibly have an opinion unless it’s playing a crabby spud in Toy Story. Then of course, we know how it feels.

But if you’re after a sentient being, ask yourself as I have – who is that person that can stand endless hours of gawking, isn’t fidgety, holds a pose just long enough and doesn’t flinch even when the image you created is a travesty, in fact – and this is important and also a bonus – can find creative ways to offer approval ?

For me, it is this guy below, although he’s still working on the ‘offering approval’ part as I am on my drawling skills.

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Two new entries

have been made into my ever expanding repertoire of cafe sketches. As temperatures soar and humidity grows to impossible heights, that’s all I seem to be doing on a weekly basis – hide in air-conditioning, drink tea with fancy names (e.g Nymph of  the Nile) and draw. I should try harder at striking the ‘struggling artist’ image, I know. Maybe next time. Till then meet –

The Provision Shop at Everton Park – it’s cute, cozy, comfy, has a homely, convivial feel to it and smells of coffee and bread. The staff is super friendly.

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and

Stranger’s Reunion cafe on Kampong Bahru Road, which on the other hand is spacious, chic, has a touch of hushed elegance associated with fine dining restaurants and smells of truffle fries. The staff seemed slightly distant and reserved but they served tea in pristine white victorian style teapots which was an acceptable trade off for me.

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A snack and a dessert

Last week while lunching with my sketcher pals at Tiong Bahru Hawker Center, I had two new additions to my ever expanding knowledge of local dishes.

I was ploughing through a plate of noodles topped with roasted pork slices and a bowl of clear soup with light fluffy wantons floating on the surface when Paul landed a plate of Chwee Kweh and a bowl of cooling Cheng Teng on our table and said, “try these”. He seemed rather pleased and glanced over his loot with such undeniable sense of achievement that I wondered if mountains were moved and demons were slain to win these back from the dragon’s den! Pretty close actually, considering the heat, humidity and long lunch time queues he must have endured to score some of this hawker center’s best offerings.

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Chwee Kweh, a white muffin shaped item (top right on my sketchbook) is a kind of steamed rice cake which was served on waxed paper and seemed bland by itself but when eaten with the salty, garlicky preserved radish relish, it hit all the right notes. “It’s a very popular snack in Singapore”, said my friends understandably when they saw me stealing second, third..fifth helpings. I managed a muffled “mmm…hmm” in between mouthfuls. They withdrew their chopsticks gently and let me finish every last bit of it.

Cheng Teng, sketched on the bottom right wasn’t an instant hit, maybe because I’m not big on desserts but what won me over eventually were its mild sweetness (from rock sugar) and cooling nature. The dish looked like brown frozen soup in a glass bowl filled with a slew of goodies known to have health benefits like gingko nuts, dried longan, winter melons, dried persimmon, sago, barley pearls, red dates and such, making it a dessert that you can sip and chew and have fun with, apparently. Paul kept asking me to dig deep with my spoon to scoop up the dried fruits along with the frozen soup and every time I did, we checked what was unearthed. “Look, persimmons.. there, get the water chestnut, quick! Aw.. it slipped. Try again”.

 

 

 

The ‘Plus Five Hundred’ walks

 

The title maybe beguiling but isn’t misleading I assure you. Here’s the story.

Right after returning from our trip to New York, we were hit with severe jet lag. Time difference had throttled our body clock. It was agonising to stay awake during the day and by night time we felt so alive and active that it was impossible to sleep. So to ease back into the GMT+08:00 time zone as quickly as possible we hatched a plan and decided to execute it immediately. Being the long new year weekend, timing was perfect and the idea was simple –  we must tire ourselves so much during the day that we’d just zonk out by nightfall. But how does one make that happen?

By taking very long walks to get our morning coffee.

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Okay, hmm…but where could we go? Maybe to a cafe/bakery that opens really early and is far enough to warrant a long walk. Quick search on the internet revealed that Tiong Bahru Bakery on Eng Hoon Street is about 5kms from our house and if we set off slightly before 7 in the morning, we could be standing first in line when their door opens. Trust me, there is a line of eager beavers queuing up to grab a seat even before the door opens.

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Some of the goodies at TBB

Besides solving the problem which it was designed for, the walk itself seemed enjoyable, more than we imagined because the two bugaboos – heat and humidity were missing from the equation. Save for the construction workers, a handful of buses, bicyclists and domestic helpers speeding towards Lucky Plaza to spend their day off, the roads were empty, the street lights were on, the sky was mellow and there was a breeze that blew our hair and dried our sweat when we climbed up an incline.

About 7000 steps later we pushed through the wooden door of Tiong Bahru Bakery where giddy with self approbation (and air-conditioning), we rewarded ourselves with sugary buttery treats to accompany the beverages. I wouldn’t mention how they fared because in Singapore, the city of gourmands, the queue for food does all the talking. And there was one snaking from the already house-full cafe’s entrance door till the cash counter which revealed how popular their goodies are with the locals and expats.

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Patrons queueing up inside Tiong Bahru Bakery

Suffice it to say that if you’ve eaten here once chances are you will come back, many more times. Unless we are out of the country, this is where we can be found every Sunday morning swirling in the glistening folds of a Kouign Amann or nestling inside the flaky comfort of an Almond Croissant. Because it was so enjoyable we started walking our way back home from the cafe, making the journey a total of 10kms which should’ve made it the most salubrious habit we ever nurtured if we didn’t know counting. But since we do, here’s the math – for every 500 calories we lose on the walk we pile on 1000 more from our cloying lapse in judgement making the count, you guessed it – plus five hundred. If there’s a lesson to be learnt from this mood dampening revelation it would be to never overthink when you’re having fun.

So naturally, the plus five hundred walks are very much on. Also, should jet lag strike again, we now have the perfect antidote.