Category Archives: Shophouses

Do you sell masala chai?

I have quelled all sorts of curiosities when I am out sketching on location but never have I been asked this question. There’s a first for everything, I guess. Also this is the sort of thing that keeps one from becoming complacent lest you think you’ve heard it all!

So there I was on Norris Road in the Little India district of Singapore, wiping sweat off my brow. I had walked through a warren of roads and back lanes with many alluring sketch worthy subjects – and though my SPF50 sunscreen coated skin felt invincible, it was no fun wandering in the 2’o’ clock sun – looking for a shady spot to sketch them from.

And then right opposite this row of shophouses (see below), I spotted an awning. And under its shade were two rickety chairs made of plastic. Both the chairs and the awning belonged to a Bangladeshi catering restaurant whose cash counter was manned by not one but two burly men who knew not how to smile unless they saw the face of money, perhaps.

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Row of shophouses on Norris Road, Little India

But I was there only for the chairs, rather for the permission to occupy one of those soon-to- be-disposed or already disposed chairs and remain undisturbed for a while. They couldn’t have cared less. So I got to work but not before doing a quick reconnaissance of my location.

Inside the restaurant were lurid posters of hilsa and mutton curry covering parts of the ochre wall that was peeling off in places. The food delivery guys were marching in and out with urgency, suppliers were parking their big vans by the pavement and from what I could see of the kitchen, there were uniformed men wearing white toques barking orders and swinging their arms to the tunes of spices and gravies.

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Norris Road, Little India

The next 20 minutes were uneventful on my chair except for the usual distractions such as tourists stopping by to check what I was up to, kids pointing me out to their parents and random people rushing with a bag of groceries to their car and slowing down just enough to get a peek at my sketchbook and immediately averting their eyes when I looked up.

The incongruity of my situation – a lone person doodling in the middle of the day in the middle of the road while the rest of the world goes about its business – is never lost on me. But what’s changed over the years though is how I’ve managed the unsolicited attention it generates. Instead of exhibiting reticence which was the go to response in my early sketching days I’ve asked myself time and again why everybody from babies in arms to the elderly hobbling along with the aid of walking sticks take an interest in someone making art. What is so special about that?

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Norris Road, Little India

Could it be that our need to create something is primordial? It may not get tended to very often by a lot of people, but it is sitting there in a dormant state inside each of us and gets stimulated every time we’re exposed to the process of creation. I’ve seen my husband – a guy who loves to eat but cannot boil water in the kitchen without help – watch ‘Jamie’s 15 minute meals’ or Gordon Ramsay’s cooking shows with great veneration for hours on end. I don’t expect a three course meal anytime soon but he’s picked up some cool tricks along the way. For all you know, breakfast in bed may not be a distant dream for me, after all.

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Row of shophouses on Norris Road in Little India, Singapore

In the same vein, I feel that if my art could ignite even a little spark of interest in someone, I wouldn’t mind sitting on a rickety chair so much in the mid afternoon heat in front of a catering restaurant and being asked by a couple of Bangladeshi tourists if ‘we’ sell Masala Chai.

“Well, I don’t know”, I said to them truthfully but they were peeved and left in a hurry probably mourning the death of customer service. Their sour departure was replaced with the most unexpected arrival of one the taciturn cashiers from the restaurant. After a long glance over my shoulders, he wanted to know more about what I was doing. Wait, what? There may have been a smile involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dickson Road

 

in Singapore’s Little India neighbourhood is at a 10mins bus ride from my home. It has a row of slightly run down, mismatched yet beautiful shophouses which I only ‘discovered’ the other day after having lived in the vicinity for 6 years. Six years! Over a glass of lime juice bought from a hole in the wall eatery I began sketching this scene from a sunny spot all the while mulling over one question – what took me so long to find this place?

I hadn’t started sketching until recently is the answer I’m going to settle for. There are millions of things vying for our attention day after day and in our bid to process all the information bombarded at us we see everything but observe nothing. Not if you are somebody who likes to draw from life, though! You sirs and madams, single out the Mandarins on the supermarket shelf not because they are on offer but because you are wondering how much Quin Gold mixed with Cadmium red will get you that specific shade of orange.

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Shophouses on Dickson Road sketched using my fav tools – dip pen and ink

In a rare instance when you are stuck in a subway without your sketching supplies you start making invisible contour drawings with your eyes of the people in the compartment. You scrutinize the shape of their nose, the arch of their back, colour of their eyes and hair along with skin tones, postures, attires and so on. Because you have this wonderful habit of documenting what you see you’re forced to slow down and focus on your subjects and with continued practice you inculcate a keen sense of observation. When your station arrives you leave with the image of a tired construction worker carrying take-out food in a red polythene bag typical of hawker centers and a Zen mom snoozing peacefully while her toddler tries to pry her eyes open. Or something of this sort.

Sure, this kind of information doesn’t serve an immediate purpose but instead of thinking about doing laundry, calling parents, cooking dinner, checking Instagram, unclogging the kitchen sink and chasing an overdue payment all at the same time, when sketching I get to park a single thought in my mind for a prolonged period of time. It is akin to meditation with all the promised benefits but without the numb legs from sitting cross legged in lotus posture.

Since I frequent Little India so much, it is impossible to have not walked on Dickson Road before but I clearly didn’t remember it. And now that I’ve drawn it, I won’t forget it.

Tras Street

 

is where I went last weekend to join the Urban Sketchers gang which meets on the last Saturday every month at a specific location. The reason why many of us look forward to this once a month rendezvous is that not only do we get to draw as a group feeding off each other’s passion and enthusiasm for art, we also meet the wonderful artists whose works we passively admire on social media and get to peek into their sketchbooks, watch them in action, sift through their tools and at times pick their brains and receive invaluable advice and feedback.

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Shophouses on Tras Street in Tanjong Pagar drawn using dip pen and ink

Having said that, one massive downside to this otherwise uplifting event- affecting only your wallet- is that you are unfailingly smitten with a certain fountain pen, brush, crayon, pigment, sketchbook or camping chair that you find one of these artists using to get those ‘impossibly good results’ in their art, or so you think. The more you watch them using it the more needy you become so much so that you cannot imagine your life without it. You find out where it is retailed and then vamoose!

I had every plan to sketch more on Tras Street, instead I have a new water brush.

 

In pursuit of the perfect location

Couple of days back, on a late afternoon I was in Kampong Glam scanning streets, alleys, sidewalks, cul de sacs in search of a proper place to sit and sketch from.

And as I was squirming in the intense heat, politely turning down offers to peruse Persian carpets on sale or to sit down for a Turkish dinner that could be had as the busboys promised with a view of the radiant Sultan mosque overlooking the entire Arab quarter, I realised that the ‘perfect location’ can be as elusive as anything good we pursue in life.

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Sketched from the lovely Working Title cafe on Arab Street

Like the perfect job, perfect partner, perfect wine or the perfect vacation, if finding the perfect location needed to be worked for and sweated over, I was doing just the same but without any success in sight. Kampong Glam cafe that normally offers an unobstructed view of the palm fringed Bussorah Street had two black vans parked right under its nose and Haji Lane packed with tourists and Friday night revellers had zero real estate to spare. My patience was fraying.

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Row of shophouses on Arab Street

Just as I was harrumphing about the lack of a single spot of shade on Baghdad Street for me to crouch under and sketch, I wondered if ‘perfection’ is subjective and therefore if it is possible to calibrate our sense of perfection and still feel accomplished? I wanted to try.

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And by that I mean, despite being occasionally interrupted and accidentally elbowed by passersby crossing the narrow ‘five foot way’ right behind me did I consider the Working Title cafe on Arab Street the perfect location? Heck, yeah! I sat by a big wooden table on the foyer all by myself for the next hour sipping coffee, looking across the road and sketching this row of beautiful shophouses.

 

Craig Road shophouses

 

are fascinating as are all shophouses in Singapore that thanks to the Urban Redevelopment Authority have been beautifully restored and are feast for the eyes!

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Yesterday I was here with a friend who I didn’t see for long and in the midst of catching up on life and such we both sketched. Above is my take on Craig Road shophouses sketched with a dip pen and brown ink and colored using watercolours.

This isn’t my first sketch on Craig road and wouldn’t be my last but what’s interesting to note here is how each of these sketches have served as progress markers on my journey as an artist. And that is why when you look back and probably cringe at your last work – which I often do – you must turn around and forge ahead with gusto because even if it’s a slow and gradual process, growth is inevitable when you’re committed.

This time I’m going to take my own advice.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

How far would you go

to get yourself a sketch? I’ve faced some uncomfortable situations trying to finish a drawing when conditions have been less than ideal. And by that I don’t mean having to draw my Martini glass because drawing anything else would need craning my neck from time to time, and wouldn’t that be an errant imposition? No, I didn’t mean that at all!

I’m alluding to conditions slightly more disagreeable, situations where you’d need to muster the will to see through the process, and in my case the likes of trying to find a smidgen of dry space to stand on and crack open my sketchbook inside Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market and having to make do with a slick pavement of fish scales, grime and dark coagulated blood from the monstrous piles of tuna flesh stacked on a handcart behind me. Or squinting my eyes to guard the midday sun in Mumbai’s blistering heat to capture the Gateway of India. Or hanging from a kiddy stool typical of Melbourne’s laneway cafes for half an hour and having my feet stomped upon by countless tourists incessantly just to get that pretty patisserie across the road on paper.

I would go on with my exhibition of bravado for the sake of art but I rather not. My bragging rights have been put into perspective after reading viral posts about artists who’ve ventured into war zones, conflict-ridden territories and uninhabitable climes to report, record and interpret what they see of this world through absolutely fetching drawings.

Well, let’s just say we’ve all endured different degrees of discomfort in the process of making art en plein air. And just as these instances remain etched in memory soaking in masochistic pleasure juices, so are the times that deprive us of them, the times when everything go right, the environment is ideal. Rare they may be, but definitely not extinct. Once in a long while there’ll be a perfect view spread right in front of you and although it’ll be midday and the afternoon heat will char your skin as if on fire, the branches of a raintree in the corner will be aligned such that the sun will be blocked out and on that very spot of shade will stand a table with a lone chair that by some astonishing stroke of luck will be unoccupied.

What do you do when that happens? This below is what I did –

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Shophouses on Tyrwhitt Road in Jalan Besar sketched from a foodcourt that faces this view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trip to Bali Lane

Stamford Raffles’s rationale for dividing Singapore into ethnic subdivisions while town planning in 1822 may have been geared towards achieving orderliness, but it is the 21st century traveler who’s thanking him today though for a slightly different reason. With modernisation changing the look of cities across the world and making them increasingly homogenous, it is such little pockets that offer character and variety to a landscape of highrises and shopping malls.

The buzz around the alfresco fruit and vegetable stalls crowded with saree clad women bedecked in gold bangles and flowers in hair, stooping over mangoes or tomatoes to check their ripeness is what defines Little India for me; the vibrant Chinese lanterns, souvenir stalls, Chilli crab outlets, calligraphy shops, temples, mahjong playing elderly uncles and the constant ebb and flow of backpackers jump out at me when I set foot in Chinatown and finally when I enter Kampong Glam, I’m steered by the palm fringed gold dome of the Sultan mosque, shops selling carpets, perfumes, silk, batik and laces, Middle Eastern eateries embellished with lamps, chandeliers and other moorish trinkets and the smell of biryani and shawarma filling the warren of narrow streets around mealtimes.

Blu Jaz and Muzium Cafe on Bali Lane, Kampong Glam

Blu Jaz and Muzium Cafe on Bali Lane, Kampong Glam

What’s common to all these precincts however is the ubiquitous shophouse – a timeless beauty, which is a delight to sketch, photograph or just be in the company of. On my last week’s trip to Kampong Glam, I sat under a huge shady tree and sketched this pleasant corner of Blue Jaz Cafe and Muzium Cafe both housed in quaint shophouses on Bali Lane with plenty of potted plants in between them. For the two hours I spent on my line drawing, I watched the cafe staff sweep leaves off the floor, dust, mop, wipe and arrange furniture, and finally grow antsy and glance uncomfortably at our direction. The footsteps of the lunch crowd descending from the nearby offices was unmistakable. We did put them at ease by wrapping up our easels and clearing off in seconds!