Monthly Archives: October 2014

Why I didn’t bake the cake..

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?

Raffles Hotel

Raffles Hotel sketched from the front

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

Seah Street

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.






The Art of Living Alone

My husband’s in India attending a family crisis and I am suddenly, without warning all by myself in our apartment. It may sound ludicrous (to me it did when I hit this realisation) that I may be a loner, but I do not like to be lonely. I may be cooped up in my room but I need to sense the existence of life in my vicinity. The faint sound of TV, the tinkering of glasses coming from the kitchen, a pack of chips popped open, a vile sneeze from an allergic reaction, courtesy the man I live with – well, cumulatively they work in keeping me sane and ticking. The point is I don’t need someone to talk, smile, be nice to me all the time but if they can somehow compile and compress themselves into a continuous background noise, I would get through my day just fine.

Without this background noise – the rustling and ruffling, swaying and swishing- when I am truly hopelessly undeniably alone, I feel awkward. With myself. It is as if the seamless conversation that we have with ourselves in our mind, the one that gives us direction throughout the day – get up, brush your teeth, clean the house, make coffee, hit the shower, exercise, start working, take a break, go for a walk and so on – is replaced with radio silence. And this silence is frazzling.

This guy in a dapper blue suit was playing amazing music at the store. He was so still that I thought he was a mannequin and had to really look hard to find the source of the music.

This guy in a dapper blue suit was playing the saxophone at the store entrance. He was so still that I thought the figure was a mannequin and had to really look hard to find the source of that amazing music.

To restore sanity in such trying times I baby sit myself. The job is difficult and thankless but someone’s gotta do it! It’s more like having to engage a whiny hyperactive toddler for a long period of time and not getting paid for the effort. ‘But if you are a bit patient, tad creative and intermittently forgiving, you may sail through this period of absence of your loved one’ proclaims my inner guru. ‘Ommm’ I say and get cracking.

First up is to keep my task list full. Activities are lined up back to back because no task equals prospective moping. In between there’s allowance for breaks to do what the heart fancies – watch TV, eat ice-cream from the tub, go shopping. When I dragged myself to Raffles City Mall the other day, I found an amazing Jazz musician in a dapper suit parked right outside a lifestyle store, making wonderful music. The blues melted away. I stood there listening as long as he played and sketched along. The colours were added at home much later. The fiery red and the garish yellow chaotically dumped over spindly lines mirrored my mental state. The sublimity of the evening had subsided and the restlessness was coming back. I didn’t like the outcome but it was cathartic so I let it be.

Chicken Noodle soup with  mushrooms at You and Mee

Mee Ayam – Dry Noodle with chicken and mushrooms. This is my favourite at You and Mee and also the cheapest most comforting dish I’ve tasted in Singapore.

Cooking for self is another bugaboo during such times, especially when you’ve been programmed to always consider what the other person likes to eat. So instead of flipping out, I simply eat out. But, I choose carefully. The more inconspicuous (bordering on invisible) I can be at a place, the better it seems. Happy couples, chatting gaily in the glow of candlelight, leisurely pouring wine into each other’s glasses are red flags. So are friends huddled at a table celebrating birthdays in their singsong voices. Lonely office guy with droopy shoulders hunched over his bowl of soup or jaded single mother force feeding her rebellious child, well, they work perfectly as my comrades-in-gastronomy. Two nights ago, I walked into You and Mee – an unpretentious hole in the wall noodle shop in my neighbourhood with bare walls, functional long wooden tables and stools – and had a 5$ dinner with a similar crew of discontents. Felt right at the time.

Peranakan museum , The substation and True Blue restaurant, all on Armenian Street

Peranakan museum , The substation and True Blue restaurant, all on Armenian Street

Five days, ‘x’ hours and ‘x’ minutes have passed since I’ve been on my own ( The ‘x’ represents my disinclination to sound desperate). But things are getting better. I am getting a hang of this. The voice is whimpering its way back. It sent me into the kitchen last night. I whipped up roasted chicken breast and paired it with warm fluffy couscous. It also sent me to a museum yesterday. I spent an entire Sunday afternoon learning about the richness of Peranakan culture and came back with a double spread sketch and a great mood. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go to the library and later eat at a nice chirpy cafe nearby.

Maybe I’m going to be just fine.




Boat Quay and a bit more

Last weekend the urban sketchers of Singapore, which I am a member of, chose Boat Quay (a popular tourist destination!) – a river embankment that curves around the shoreline of the north and south sides of the Singapore River – as their sketching venue. Before I describe what met my eyes, let me take you back in time. Like hundred and fifty years back.  By this time, swamp covered Singapore once infested with wild animals, dense forests, pirates, and the Malayan Temenggung had been ‘found’ by 38 year old Raffles (in 1918), it’s allegiance shifted to the crown and it’s fate as a free trading post and deep water harbour for British merchant fleets in the Mallacca Straits had been sealed.

The settlement had developed considerably – forests had been cleared, hills flattenned, muddy pools and swampy ground levelled off, lands auctioned to build houses, business and residential quarters laid out, fundamental laws such as prohibition of gambling put down. Palatial hotels and European bunglows of the traders were lining the shore, while the locals – mostly Chinese and Arabs settled on the left bank of the Singapore river. Nutmeg, pepper, gambier, cocoa nut plantations, were starting to prosper, attracting merchants and traders from far and wide to the shores of Singapore.

Frank Vincent, a traveler describes the scene while approaching the dock in Singapore, upon his visit in 1871, “Like Malacca,very little of the town or city of Singapore appears from the sea…We steam past two or three war vessels, two telegraph steamers(which are only awaiting orders from London to commence laying a a wire from here to Hong Kong), and by some thirty or forty merchant ships of all nations to our anchorage in the crescent-shaped roadstead about a mile from town. We engage a Malay prow to take us ashore, and are landed near Hotel d’Europe, to which our good captain has recommended us”. 

Circular Road, Boat Quay

Circular Road, Boat Quay / Once again the mishmash of acrchitectural style of the shophouses and businesses they house today is so interesting – (from L to R) a Japanese restaurant, an office, a hairdressing salon named “Flair”, a night club named Kriselle and more offices.

The ‘crescent-shaped roadstead’ that Vincent mentions in this narrative could very likely be the Boat Quay, we were documenting in our sketchbooks for three hours last Saturday. The Chinese likened the concave shape of the dock to the ‘belly of the carp’ which they believe is auspicious for business. And so it was. While the north bank was reserved for government buildings, the south bank prospered as the commercial hub (this port was one of the most important in the British Empire, specially after the opening of Suez canal in 1869) lined with gowdowns, warehouses, merchant offices, shops of shipwrights and ship chandlers. There is no Hotel d’ Europe though, which used to be a stone’s throw away on the north bank and have since been replaced with the Supreme Court.

If you were a 19th century traveler like Vincent, driving by Boat Quay in a hackney carraige ($5 a day for a pair or $3 for one horse!), or a British clerk hurrying to his downtown trading office in a jinrickshaw (3 cents for half a mile for one passenger), you’d find the river bank teeming with bumboats / sampans (Chinese sailing boats), cheek by jowl, gently bobbing with the ebb and flow of the waves.  A constant drone of human limbs stretching, lifting, scurrying across gangplanks would drive your gaze to the scores of swarthy men with taut leathery skin loading and unloading gunnysacks of cargo on their arched backs in the scorching equatorial heat. What remains unchanged even today is perhaps the weather.

Many original buildings have been preserved, but instead of stale smelling gowdowns, you have access to crispy fish and chips and chilled beer. These grand dames of the past now work as pubs, restaurants and night clubs. Commanding skyscrapers form the backdrop in place of ‘a fine view of the straits, the large island of Bintang (visible) in the distance and the Chinese junks and foreign shipping in the harbour‘ as described by Vincent from his luxury hotel.

Besides sketchwalking, a significant part of the weekend was spent at my husband’s office. He had to clear some pending work and I decided to accompany with a plan in mind. This is how it took shape :

Sketches of some random desks. I was interested in clutter and my husband's desk was a disappointment in this regard. I was so amused by the props at each desk - teddy bears, dinosaur, a pig (??!!) that grunts when you press its belly. Unbeknowst the owner of the pig, I had by fun.

Sketches of some random desks. I was interested in clutter and my husband’s desk was a disappointment in this regard. I was so amused by the toy props at each desk – teddy bears, a dinosaur and tiny soldiers, a pig (??!!) that grunts when you press its belly. Unbeknowst to the owner of that pig, I had my fun.