I won’t stay long

Romanesque architecture is the last thing you would expect to chance upon in metropolitan Seoul. But emerge out of exit 5 of the City Hall station, turn left on Sejong-daero 19-gil and there it is in its massive thick walled, round arched and decorative arcaded entirety.

If not for one of the local artists who insisted upon taking me there, I would’ve given Seoul Anglican Cathedral a pass. After drawing inside the adjacent Deoksugung Palace followed by a scrumptious bowl of Bibim Naengmyeon (Spicy cold noodles) for lunchI was ready to wind down.

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Seoul Anglican Cathedral

But I take all my foreign artist-friends there…this place is…Oh!you must see it.“, pleaded my friend who could easily be two decades my senior but her enthusiasm showed no sign of waning in the soporific summer heat.  If I was a wilting flower in the vase by the window, she was the sprinkle of cold water on my face.

I was revived, momentarily.

“Let’s go..but I won’t stay long, okay?” I said to a figure that had left my side, hurried into a cafe on the cathedral grounds and was now paying for two cold coffees. “You know, the cafe owner escaped from North Korea and is now making a living here. “, she said, handing me a cup.

But I wasn’t listening. I was looking around and wondering if we got teleported.

Seoul Anglican Cathedral

Seoul Anglican Cathedral

Only a minute ago we were trundling towards the cathedral past tourists, a construction site and a bunch of former President Park’s supporters waving flags and rallying for her release. Tall glistening office buildings closed in from all sides and the din of traffic on a muggy Saturday morning felt omnipresent.

And yet in the blink of an eye here we were, standing in the quiet shadow of a 20th century brick and granite structure with a manicured garden.

I’ve drawn this a million times.”, said my friend. I could already see her trained hand forming a rough outline of the cathedral on her sketchbook with a water soluble crayon. She was in the zone while my eyes were glued to the information leaflet I had picked up.

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Sketch of the cathedral using dip pen and ink

Interestingly, the cathedral’s construction started in 1922, during the Japanese occupation of Korea but due to financial constraints it couldn’t be completed as per it’s British architect, Arthur Dixon’s original cruciform design.

The transepts on either side and the nave had to be scaled back and the building remained incomplete until, and here’s the fun part, a British Museum worker visited the cathedral in 1993, found that the architect was Dixon, travelled all the way to England to locate the blueprints which he found in the museum archives and returned them to the Parish office in Seoul. Expansion started in 1994, and the cathedral was finally completed in 1996, 74 years later.

Happy ending, right? Mine was too. I decided to stay a while longer and sketch.

 

 

 

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The girl with the selfie stick

told me there was going to be a parade.

What parade?

I am the kind of a person who likes to be prepared. Wikipedia, Google maps, subway routes and the weather app – all had been read and consulted with before I got here, inside Deoksugung Palace, one of Seoul’s four royal palaces to sketch with a bunch of local artists.

Then how did I skip the part about this parade? An oversight perhaps. All I know is finding a gaping hole in my pre-trip research, something I am a self-confessed expert of had taken the wind out of my sails was a wee bit soul crushing.

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Junghwamun Gate inside Deoksugung Palace, Seoul.

It’s the changing of guards ceremony. Happens thrice a day…here they come“, she offered kindly, mistaking incredulity for curiosity. Wedged between her body and her thin arm was a fat Japanese guidebook on Korea.

I could already hear the drums and the sound of marching footsteps round the corner. Grabbing a bench facing the mighty Junghwamun – the inner palace gate leading to the main throne hall – I quickly laid out my sketching gear and waited with a dip pen and a bottle of ink in hand. The Japanese tourist had her phone propped up with a selfie stick and was standing by the road, also waiting. You can see her in my sketch.

As the sightly procession of uniformed guards carrying colourful flags passed us by, we captured the event in our own way.

Before leaving she asked me if I was a tourist too and though I still feel like one, I found myself savouring the fact that I wasn’t and therefore could visit this palace and watch this ceremony as many times as I wanted.

What was even more uplifting was when I reached inside by bag and touched the reassuring crook handle of my umbrella. “Wasn’t it supposed to…”. 

After several balmy days, it had rained very heavily that day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life sucks but first, coffee

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Alver Cafe in Gangnam, Seoul

said the coffee cup sleeve at Alver cafe (see above) near my house in Gangnam-gu.

Without a modal verb – may or might, the message seemed frighteningly definitive, especially when I picked up the tumbler to drink and my fingers covered the last three words!

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(L) I was sketching this animated bunch of girls at La Eskimo cafe, and by the time I drew two the group left. The guy was promptly picked up from another table and put with the girls that got drawn. Talk about creative license!

It can be the strangest of things at the most unseemly places that prompt you to run a spot check of your life.

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People of Paris Baguette below my apartment.

I’m almost 4 months old in Seoul. Among other things I still pine for my friends, the huge libraries filled with English books and the well-stocked art shops of Singapore where I spent many good hours. And I am still discomfited by the fact that I don’t live a mere 4 hours away from my parents anymore and should they need assistance, it’ll take me a while to be with them. But in these 3 months, we’ve ironed out most of the kinks relating to the move and by extension, our lives because that’s what moving forward entails.

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(R) My husband was watching India vs Pakistan:ICC champion’s Trophy on his phone and reading William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King” on his kindle thus proving men can (selectively) multitask.

The initial surprises (like, what! local banks don’t have provision for joint accounts?; A watermelon costs 14 dollars?; Supermarkets don’t store half the things we are used to buying) and challenges (like properly separating trash or paying utility bills online) have been had and subsequent discoveries (you can get anything from a skillet to a golf ball home delivered; apartments have speakers on the ceiling through which you hear random announcements being made in Korean by the building management) have been made.

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(R) Two men eating Mango ‘Bingsu’  – Korean shaved iced dessert with sweet toppings at Paris Baguette. 

I don’t convert the price of every item I buy into Singapore dollars anymore. And I definitely understand the subway system better. The wide-eyed, fresh off the boat look is wearing off.

As more time passes, I feel that the memories we made in the last seven years of our lives in Singapore are migrating further into the cortex of my brain.  I don’t reach for them as often as I used to because I am making fresh ones.

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(L) Sketched this lady wearing work clothes and eating a big salad on a late Sunday night at Paris Baguette.

Just the other day an elderly lady in the subway asked me where I was from and after I answered, she said, “Welcome to Korea!” with such burst of enthusiasm and warmth that I almost didn’t believe she was real. Then she hugged me, patted my arm and went on her way.

So from where I stand, life doesn’t suck. Also I am a tea drinker. I may adore Alver cafe’s brick walls with vertical gardens and glass partitioned interiors, but I am going to be a dissident and pass up on those wiseass cup sleeves next time!

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(L) Sketched this guy in Alver cafe wearing a blue silk knotted neckerchief especially because it seems to be a popular fashion accessory in Seoul at the moment among both men and women. Most accessory shops I’ve come across were stocked to the hilt with these!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She made me look fat

Sometimes while doing the most inane tasks like staring at your toe nails for example, have you ever been stricken with a surge of creative energy that makes you feel you could do anything?

I have and before it fizzled out I rode with it and some sketching supplies on the subway to Hoehyeon station, emerged out of Exit 5 and walked straight into a noisy, overcrowded, confusing maze called Namdaemun Market, Korea’s largest traditional market with 600 years of history.

The first order of business was to orient myself and then locate a discreet corner from where I could sketch without being in the way of either the vendors or the shoppers. I got hopelessly lost instead which wasn’t exactly surprising considering I was a first time visitor to a market that has over 10,000 stores and is visited by 300,000 people a day.

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Sketching on Fashion Street in Namdaemun Market, Seoul

To give you a idea, here’s a list of the items I saw being sold on just one of the streets – hats (all kinds imaginable and more), fur coats, dried nuts, dumplings, spectacles, stone seals, eerie looking ginseng with their sinewy roots stored in clear glass jars and miles of kitchen utensils. I was beginning to believe in the saying that if you don’t find it in Namdaemun Market, you won’t find it anywhere in Seoul.

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View from my corner on Fashion Street.

A map, which I had snagged from the tourist information centre in the meantime showed entire alleys and streets dedicated to cameras, bedding items, watches and jewellery, mountain climbing equipments, women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, stationaries and more.

When I spotted yards of army green stretched out in the form of military uniforms, T-shirts, caps, blankets, boots, sacks, compasses, watches and telescopes, I knew I had hit the ‘Military Uniform Street’ on my way back from the ‘Fish and Stew Alley’. Galchi jorim, or braised hairtail fish stew, one of Namdaemun Market’s famed food offerings along with Kalguksu (Korean knife-cut noodle soup) have to wait for my next visit.

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Namdaemun Market in Seoul – Korea’s largest traditional market. Drawn with dip pen and ink.

This visit was all about channeling my chance ebullience fuelled by the mood enhancing amino acid in my matcha latte for all I knew and perhaps the fact that I had been feeling pretty sketch-deprived lately. Seoul is still new to me. I don’t know the best spots to sketch from yet. Finding out can be fun but sometimes exhausting too when you just want to get down to business!

‘Fashion Street’ had one little corner squeezed in between a fur coat vendor, shirt, pants and coat seller and a shop selling pink and cutesy Mickey mouse themed merchandise from where I made this drawing. Tons of people came to look and showed various signs of appreciation though I didn’t understand a word they said. What I clearly did understand simply because some things transcend languages, was when fur coat vendor in his excitement dragged Mickey mouse lady by the arm to show how I had put her in my sketch and she self consciously touched her waist and said, “She made me look fat!” and marched off.

 

 

 

 

 

Yeouido Park has a cool display

and I got to sketch it the other day when I was in the neighbourhood.

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Yeouido Park in Seoul with a transport military aircraft – Douglas C47 skytrain on display

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from the Japanese rule, a transport military aircraft called Douglas C 47 skytrain was put on display in Yeouido Park on August 18th 2015 for 3 years. How lucky are we to have our visit coincide with the display of such a unique exhibit?

I had been eyeing it with absolute wonder on my long afternoon walks in the park for the whole month of March, when we stayed in the nearby Glad Hotel immediately after moving to Seoul. It stood out even more then because the park was barren. Waking up from the grey winter, the trees were skeletal and people were scarce, except during lunch hour when they would emerge in hordes from the nearby office buildings wrapped in coats and scarves to get fresh air and stretch their legs in the park.

 

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At Yeouido Park, sketching the Douglas C47 skytrain using dip pen and ink

Three months hence, the scene is different. The park is bathed in sunshine and the myriad shades of green on the trees contrast the aquamarine sky with pillowy clouds floating in it. I see gleeful children shrieking with joy while racing each other around the blue platform on which the C47 is proudly standing, followed by teenage boys and girls rollerblading hand in hand. About 20 meters away, a bunch of school boys in uniform are shooting hoops. Don’t miss the portable basketball goals in the sketch! They are scattered all over the asphalt pavement of the park.

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Close up of my sketch of Yeouido Park with its unique exhibit

What’s special about this military aircraft on display is that it’s identical to the one in which 15 members of the Korean provincial government flew home from Shanghai in 1945 to land at the Yeouido airport (now Yeouido Park). The provincial government of Korea founded in 1919 in Shanghai was operating as an interim government-in-exile to gain independence from the Japanese rule (1910-1945).

As you can see in my sketch, the display aircraft has a flight of stairs attached to it for visitors to climb inside and explore its interiors. Unfortunately it was closed when I was there earlier this week but fortunately I have time until 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

Ewha Womans University

was the location of my first sketchwalk with the Seoul Urban Sketchers. I had been waiting for this day ever since we moved here and the countdown ended last Saturday when I hopped on a train from Gangnam and travelled all the way to one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, to meet a group of 20 sketchers who gave me the warmest welcome I’d ever received.

EWHA b&wThe thing about urban sketching, especially in a group like this is that it is one of the most enjoyable and unique ways to see a city and learn about it too at your own pace. It is also a great way to make the acquaintance of locals, hear their stories and view the place through their eyes.

If not for Dominick, a fellow sketcher who I met at the sketchwalk, I wouldn’t have known that the tree whose massive trunk I was gawking at was a ginkgo tree. We found it while scouting for suitable locations to sketch from, inside the arboretum-like university campus.

They turn yellow in fall, don’t they?” I asked Dominick, pointing to the fan shaped leaves. I had seen pictures of golden ginkgo-tree lined streets on the Internet and couldn’t believe I standing before something that was capable of turning into such surreal beauty later in the year.

Yes, but did you know that the female tree produces a nut that is extremely smelly? It’s a nuisance!” he said.

I did not know that! A little research back home revealed that there are 114,000 ginkgo trees in Seoul and one in 10 are female and the nuts they produce are nutritious and tasty when cooked, but the butyric acid in their husk produces an offensive smell. Some say it stinks of vomit, others say it smells like rotten cheese! I read that the city employs over 400 people to wipe the streets and the sidewalks clean off the pungent ginkgo nuts.

So is this tree a male or a female?”, I asked Dominick but he didn’t know.

EWHA finalA short walk from the ginkgo tree brought us to this charming stone Gothic structure nestled in greenery . The sky was a cool blue and except the sound of breeze rustling through the leaves and chirping of birds, it was really quiet. It took me about 40 mins to finish the line work using a dip pen and ink.

I coloured the sketch later as I had to rush off to a book club but not without the burning desire to revisit the campus again in autumn if not before to determine the gender of the first ginkgo tree I met.

 

 

 

Seven sketchbooks later

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when I crack open the eighth, run my fingers across the first white page and prepare to draw the man sipping coffee next to me I still freeze.

I recoil. I do not want the sketchbook to spoil. But the voice in my head says, start. 

Start even when you are filled with hesitation and packed to the gills with self doubt. 

Start because you’ve done it many, many times. 

Start because once you start it’ll come to you. Start anyway. 

And when I start, put pencil to paper, it’s a breeze. 

 

Seven sketchbooks later I still wonder if it’s any good. What should I be doing?

Just keep going, says the voice. Again.

Keep going because it doesn’t matter what others think. 

Now, let that thought sink.

So I pick up a crayon and colour the man’s coffee mug pink! And chuckle.

 

Seven sketchbooks later I still have as much fun as I did when I was drawing in my first. But can I make it last? 

 You want to keep having a blast? the voice is amusedperhaps at my avaricious scheme to hoard the riches of creativity.

But such riches are boundless and for anyone to grab, I yell.

Well, that’s swell, says the voice and offers the last tip – experiment, improvise, take risks and y’know, mix it up a little! 

give it your best – every jot and tittle.

7 sketchbooks

I use Muji sketchbooks for sketching people. They are small, lightweight, square shaped and can take water colour well. Oh and cheap too!

And that’s what I’ve been doing. I now have 7 sketchbooks filled cover to cover with sketches of people who I see around me everyday at cafes, restaurants and in the subway. It’s not a big number but it is something considering how afraid and hesitant I was when it came to drawing people an year ago. Several times, especially when the drawing didn’t go my way and was cringeworthy beyond measure, I second guessed myself and wanted to give up. I still do.

But as trite as it may sound, something kept me going, rather keeps me going. The voice in the head is real. It is born out of doggedness. Besides having fun which is primarily why I draw people and everything else, to observe and to document that on the spot, in that very moment feels like actively participating in my own life. Here’s hoping the feeling never goes away!

Below are sketches from my 7th sketchbook. The last sketch in the series is also the very last one I made in Singapore before leaving the country two months ago.  Enjoy!

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Tall and tattooed. Seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Singapore

 

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People at Hanis Cafe, outside the National Library of Singapore, my absolute fav place to go. 

 

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Sketched the lady on the left over a bowl of rich and creamy lobster bisque at Soup Stock Tokyo in Singapore. She was waiting for her food. There was no slouching!

 

 

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A lonely guy seen at Starbucks who kept looking at people very longingly, perhaps waiting for someone to fill the seat opposite him. 

 

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Lobster red French tourists on the right were sitting at the next table at Tiong Bahru Bakery (TBB) in Singapore. They were pretty amused to see me sketching them. 

 

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On the left is a Caucasian dad tending to his very cute half Caucasian-half Asian child. Also seen at TBB. 

 

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Seen at Newton Food Centre, Singapore. They were eating shrimp fried rice, I think. 

 

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Guy on the left reading Financial Times and the lady on the right in gym clothes reading a book on kindle and forgetting to eat. Both seen at TBB, Singapore

 

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Started drawing the guy on the left because he had ordered a lot of food. I thought he’d stay put for long giving me enough time to finish drawing. But he was acutely hungry, finished everything in seconds and left!

 

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Starbucks patrons drawn on a depressing Sunday night (because next day was Monday, duh!)

 

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Ladies on the right – One ate voraciously and the other looked expectedly. Seen at TBB, Singapore

 

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Couple on the right was sitting at the table of superlatives. The lady had the longest nose and the gentleman had the narrowest chin in the entire cafe. They were having coffee together at TBB. 

 

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View from my table at our neighbourhood Starbucks in Singapore. It is heartening to see kids holding actual books and reading! Such are our times. 

 

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Seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Singapore. The cafe was 5 kms away from our apartment. We walked there every Sunday morning for a whole year. I drew and my husband read.

 

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The lady on the right was straight as a ramrod. Hardly get to see such perfect posture! Drawn at TBB, Singapore

 

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Just some people eating at Newton Food Centre in Singapore. I went there  often for the excellent meatball noodles. 

 

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Ladies on the left were part of the lunch crowd at Hanis Cafe near the fantastic National Library of Singapore. They were having fish and chips with Ice tea. It was a breezy afternoon, only a few days before I left the country. 

 

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Lady on the left had a remarkably colourful woven bag that I instantly coveted. The next best thing was to draw the bag and the owner. The lady on the right was dutifully photographing her food before eating because, Instagram. 

 

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Lady on the right was the last person I sketched before leaving Singapore. Seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery.