Monthly Archives: December 2014

When you hang out with sketch artists..

a) You always get invited on Sketch dates.

And it’s pure joy. More often than not, the location is exotic and even if it isn’t, you have great company and even if you have great company you aren’t obliged to socialize, make small talk or mingle. Misanthropes fit right in. You get to sit in your own little corner, do your own little thing, talk as much or as little to the next person and it still doesn’t affect your chances of getting invited again.

Shophouses at Emerald Hill

Row of terrace houses at Emerald Hill. Tried sketching in a big format – about 40cm x 20cm

Last week’s location was Emerald Hill, right opposite Orchard Central and undoubtedly one of the most accessible and prettiest places in Singapore with rows of exquisitely conserved pre-war terrace houses turned into business establishments and homes. It is really hard to be not inspired here. Even though our path and enthusiasm was marred with a veritable rainstorm  (for it is the wet season) the show went on as you can see from this fruitful harvest! Each one of us left feeling inspired, contended and with promises of future hangouts.

Another Shophouse at Emerald Hill

A dainty blue shophouse at Emerald Hill. This looks really well as my iPad wallpaper!

b) You order food that would render well in a drawing.

Colours, shapes, sizes take precedence over taste. And most importantly, right after the food arrives at your table and the tantalising smell starts flirting with your senses, you are able to exercise monastic restraint in choosing the fork over the pencil and an inimitable ambition to finish sketching before the food gets cold and/or your dining companion starts fidgeting.

Lunch at Sakae Sushi

Lunch at Sakae Sushi

After my sketcher friend finished placing her order at Sakae Sushi, she turned to me and brightly declared, “The Salmon and Tuna sashimi..aren’t they colourful?…I ordered these, coz they’d look wonderful in our sketchbooks”. I might have teared up a little.

c) You get programmed to see ‘interesting’ things wherever you go, in the most unassuming places and at all possible times and want to document that.

And in doing so, with practice, you become a chronic chronicler with benefits aplenty. When you start documenting something, you are forced to slow down and observe more. You become mindful of every moment. You learn to live in the present. This may seem like bumper sticker wisdom but actually has much longer shelf life and is a widely practiced philosophy even. Peter Matthiessen in his book Snow Leopard, says, ‘..the courage-to-be, right here, right now and nowhere else, is precisely what Zen,..demands : eat when you eat, sleep when you sleep!”

Drinking Honey lemon Juice at Toast Box

Drinking Honey lemon Juice at Toast Box

Only because I was with a sketch artist, did I take away time from my honey lemon juice to join her in drawing this bunch of vintage items exhibited at Toast Box – a ‘reflection of coffee shops in the 60s and 70s’ – as part of their decor. I walked away knowing every item on those two shelves and the ones I liked the most – the palm sized TV and a pair of antique looking (or antique) binoculars. Probably this information won’t serve me a great purpose but when I was there, sketching, I wasn’t thinking of checking my phone, answering emails or figuring what to cook for dinner. I was involved and emotionally invested in what I was doing. It seemed like a therapeutic exercise in mindfulness and left me richer than anyone walking off with just the taste of that overly sweet honey lemon drink.






Tramping in Tiong Bahru

Countless Singaporean friends have adjudged Tiong Bahru as one of Singapore’s most sought after residential addresses. And why not. Nowhere on the island have I seen an entire estate lined with lipstick palm fringed, pristine white apartment blocks with bright red borders, bearing luscious curved balconies and rear back alley spiral staircases reminiscent of medieval Europe.

I’m no Art Deco fan, but the more I visit Tiong Bahru, the more mindful and appreciative I become of its architectural elements. The clean aerodynamic curves and rounded corners, the flat roofs, subdued base colours with bright red trimmings, horizontal bands of windows, occasional inclusion of nautical elements such as porthole windows and steel railings, and the overall simple and functional lines of these pre war apartments designed in the ‘Streamline Moderne’ style (a late development of Art Deco movement) is growing on me.

Inspired by technology and speed, buildings were designed to look like automobiles, trains, ocean liners and aeroplanes! At a heritage walk in the estate our guide pointed out that Block 81 and 82 along Tiong Poh Road were known to early residents as ‘aeroplane flats’ because they appeared like the wings of an aeroplane. It still seems hopelessly abstract to me but I’m getting there.

A typical Tiong Bahru Apartment

A unique design feature of Tiong Bahru’s flats is the use of unpainted brick work on some balconies, laid out in patterns of darker and lighter bricks.

There was another wave of construction after the war. Between 1948 and 1954 the several blocks of four storey apartments erected along Seng Poh Road towards Tiong Bahru Road and Boon Tiong Road were designed differently, i.e in the ‘International Style’. For the untrained eye it maybe hard to tell the difference as this style was also influenced by machine aesthetics but favoured heavy use of concrete, steel and glass. Also the apartments were much boxier than their pre war counterparts.

What more, these modernist designs were tailored to suit the tropics! Such as the five-foot way, a distinctive architectural element of the shophouses (introduced by Raffles) – setting back the ground floor entrance by five feet allowing pedestrians to walk from one end of the block to another in sheltered comfort – was adapted in Tiong Bahru flats.

The warren of well maintained back lanes that you see behind the apartments meant for ‘scavenging (access for night soil carriers) and drainage’; the shophouse design – the ground floor used for business and the upper floors for lodging; spiral staircases at the rear for providing alternative access and fire escape for dwellers; kitchen airwell for allowing fumes to escape naturally are other features that were infused by the architects, reflecting their acuity.

Monkey God Temple on Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru

The Tiong Bahru Monkey God Temple was founded in 1920 and moved here to its current location at 44 Eng Hoon Street in 1938.

Whether you’re a first time visitor trying to wrap your mind around these unique residential units and their provenance or a wannabe resident, two things that’ll always jump out at you are how uniquely quaint, neighbourly and laid back this part of Singapore feels with its streamlined architecture, open spaces of grass plots and playgrounds served by footpaths, local eateries, heritage temples and mom and pop stores; and in this shadow of the past, how palpably hipster it is becoming – talk about nifty bakeries, artisan cafes, indie bookstores, upscale restaurants, salons, boutiques, speciality shops, Tiong Bahru has it all.

For a former 19th century burial ground to have evolved into what it is today, it’s pretty commendable, wouldn’t you agree? ‘Tiong’ means ‘to die’ in Hokkien and ‘Bahru’ is Malay for ‘new’. ‘Tiong Bahru’ was used by locals to refer to a ‘new cemetery’ at this very site. Who knew! Right beside the new, was an old cemetery called Tiong Lama, replaced by what is now the Singapore General Hospital by Outram Road. In fact, it was the relocation of the hospital (from Kandang Kerbau’s swampy grounds) in 1882 to this highly elevated site, that played the role of a catalyst in Tiong Bahru’s transformation.

The hospital’s presence encouraged settlement in the area for the next 40 years. A village of wooden and attap houses called Kampong Tiong Bahru flourished to such an extent that by 1920s, the Municipal health authorities felt that the area around the hospital was becoming insanitary.

P.S Cafe Petit - One of TB's most beautiful cafes

P.S Cafe Petit – One of TB’s most beautiful cafes. We had Truffle fries, Caesar salad, Spaghetti Bolognese, Mocha and ‘Calming Tea’.

The Tiong Bahru Heritage Trail brochure carries an excerpt from The Straits Times of 26th June 1930, describing the area during this time :”..the land was practically all evil smelling swamp, several feet below sea level, with a dirty-looking reek running through it to the Singapore River. There were three fairly large hills on the far side from the main roads, and on these were numerous hovels, filthy and insanitary, occupied by squatters of the pig-breeding and coolie types.

In 1925, upon Colonial Secretary’s request to propose an improvement scheme for the area, Dr. P.S Hunter, the Municipal Health Officer asked the Municipal Corporation to take action. Singapore Improvement Trust was established in 1920 initially as a department of Municipal Corporation and later after it became a separate entity in 1927, was approved a special budget of $260,000 to acquire 70 acres of land in Tiong Bahru, with the aim of turning the insanitary swamp into a housing estate, with the aim of relieving congestion in Chinatown.

However things didn’t go as planned. Rents in Tiong Bahru, averaging between $18 to $25 for an apartment was unfordable for the mass residents in Chinatown, who were paying between $3 – $6 a month as rent. Instead the estate attracted the affluent and professional class. By 1939, Tiong Bahru became a haven for civil servants, businessmen and Europeans who appreciated the neighbourhood’s proximity to town and modern amenities like flushing toilets!

As per the brochure, “Today the 2042 flats form the heart of Tiong Bahru and are one of the best preserved low-rise Art Deco style mass public housing projects in the world.” In 2003, the URA gazetted 20 blocks of pre-war flats for conservation. Since then the area has attracted new residents and frequent visitors.

I am undoubtedly one of them.