Every year, on my husband’s birthday I prepare an elaborate meal that I am really proud of, and a very basic chocolate cake that somehow scrapes by. Now I am not much of a baker and it’s a breeze to order a fancy, much superior cake from the store. But I don’t do the obvious, however tempting that is. There’s an undeniable masochistic pleasure in attempting something I am averse to for someone I care about! Hence the arduous whipping and whirling.
This year however, my conviction was intercepted. Gifts were wrapped, the meal was prepped and planned, the dessert was setting in the refrigerator and I almost had the cake in the bag. That’s when I heard about the monthly urban sketching event occurring at and around one of the grandest buildings of Singapore – Raffles Hotel. Hanging out with fifty art enthusiasts sketching, sharing ideas, getting inspired or solitary whipping and whirling in the kitchen? Filling juicy double spreads in my Moleskine or watching an egg and flour concoction rise? Easy right?
The grandeur of hotel’s colonial architecture matched with the placid greenery of the travellers palms and sweet scented frangipanis, still harks back to the romance of 19th and 20th century travel when writers, historians, explorers and sojourners showed up in their schooners, eager to ‘discover’ the exotic East and booked their stay at this place.
A beautifully curated in-house museum, which unfortunately is closed now, housed vivid memorabilia of the yesteryears – handwritten postcards, luggage labels, old photographs, guidebooks, hotel brochures, advertisements, posters that gave visitors a glimpse into the lives of the boarders who romped around these corridors, waltzed in the ballroom, nursed tall glasses of Singapore Sling in the Long Bar and wrote passionately (Hint: Somerset Maugham) in the tranquility of the outdoor verandas overlooking the Palm Court.
Amid the modern landscape – which has changed heaps since 1887 when Raffles Hotel was established – this little oasis on Beach Road looks like a stubborn time capsule. It is this incongruity that excites me every time I walk into the property past the tall liveried Sikh guards manning it’s doors since the days of yore. Over the years, land reclamation has pushed the waterfront further away and instead of jinrikshaws and hackney carriages, fancy cars are pull up the driveway.
Plonked on a sidewalk, I sketch this scene for over an hour, losing myself in the immense neo-Renaissance architectural details that doesn’t meet the eye when you look at the facade but magically unveil when you try to capture on paper. The Sikh guard came over twice to check my progress.
Seah Street adjoining Raffles hotel is the example of a typical Singaporean street that I love to sketch because of its potent mishmash of extremes. The architecture segues from Straits Baroque to Art Decco, the businesses range from hipster pubs and bistro bars to pedestrian chicken rice stalls, punctuated with old Chinese clan associations and trade centers, all in one row, cheek by jowl, sharing walls, awnings, parking space and history.
The street itself was named after the prominent Seah family. Eu Chin Seah an immigrant from South China was a wealthy merchant ( he made a fortune in gambier and pepper plantations and was called the ‘King of Gambier’) and a leader of the Chinese community in 19th century Singapore. So were his sons Seah Liang Seah and Seah Peck Seah, who also have streets named after them. What’s interesting further is that the three parallel streets in the Bras Basah area : Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street used to be the original settlement site for the Hainanese immigrants (The ‘Singapore Hainan Society’ sign board that’s to the left bottom of my sketch on Seah St hints at this) and were known as Hainan First Street, Hainan Second Street and Hainan Third Street.
Considering that the Hainanese were mainly employed in the service industry (in local hotels, restaurants, bars and bakeries as cooks and domestic servants) it isn’t surprising that the famous ‘Singapore Sling’ birthed at the hands of Ngian Tong Boon, a Hainanese bartender working at Raffles Hotel in 1915. See the blatant red awnings of Sin Swee Kee Chicken Rice stall in my sketch? Well, they house the famous chicken rice, that was first adapted to its current form by Wong Yi Yuan a Hainanese immigrant and later popularised by his apprentice Mok Fu Swee, through these restaurants.
Besides witnessing layers of history, what drives me to capture such streets in my sketchbook is their dynamism, their ever changing, continuously morphing nature. If you’ve lived in Singapore you’d know what’s here on this street today won’t necessarily be there tomorrow. One of the most common sights on the road I believe is the large moving truck! At least, when this scenery changes and it will I’m positive, my Moleskine will bear testimony to a time gone by.
For now, it justifies my skipping an yearly ritual. My husband understands.