Tag Archives: Cafe sketching

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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. 

 

Things no one sees

are the ones that keep me occupied for hours. If you’ve read my earlier post –  Had people watching – you must be aware of my penchant for practicing flânerie, especially at cafes and how I channel my people watching / observation skills into making art.

 

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Just a guy alone with his coffee savouring a quiet moment

So far it’s been fun! Sketching is a mindful exercise and extremely gratifying, but sketching people is enlivening. There isn’t a moment of dullness or monotony because no two people you sketch can be alike. They differ not just in their attire and mannerisms but also in their interaction with/reaction to their surroundings.

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This couple started out acting all lovey-dovey, listening to the same music, leaning on each other, holding hands and then everything went downhill from there in the next 10 mins until one of them stormed out. Ah, the capriciousness of love.

These people captured in my sketchbook can be generically labelled as say, the coffee drinkers of Singapore because that’s what they’re technically there for but that’s not the only thing they do or if you’re observant enough, that’s not the only thing you see them doing. I once sketched a chain-smoker with a lot of swagger sipping coffee and blowing smoke into the ‘No smoking ‘ sign right next to him.

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Two very fashionable ladies and a guy sitting in between them with hand on his head. One of the women was ranting in Japanese and the two were mostly zoned out, I think.

That same week I had also sketched a girl who was part of big group that ate and drank quite liberally at the cafe but right before leaving she was the only person who cleared every bit of trash on their messy table before walking out.

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This bunch of pimply faced boys were from Anglo Chinese School and were studying ‘O level Topical Physics’ at Starbucks. They were all plugged in to their phones, swinging shoulders from time to time and sipping Macha lattes. These surely are different times!

With each sketch I get to peep into a stranger’s life for few minutes and capture them living an ordinary moment which otherwise would have gone unnoticed, unaccounted for. For example the Chinese grandma wearing jade bangles and a frumpy top on what seemed like her first trip to Starbucks was another fun subject to sketch.

 

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(L) This cute grandma had a strident voice, a blue clamp holding her red hair and jade bangles around her frail wrists. From the way she surveyed the place and the patrons sitting around her from time to time and inspected her cup of latte, it seemed like her first time here at our neighbourhood Starbucks. Don’t miss her colourful shopping trolley!

She looked out of place and excited at the same time to be holding probably her first cup of latte in her wrinkled hand. She may never know this, but 2 meters away I was touched to have witnessed that moment and document it in my sketchbook.

 

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It was really hard to believe that this guy was eating Tiong Bahru Bakery’s Kouign Amann ( which by the way is top notch) with such indifference.

All sorts of students, specially pimply restless school students plugged in to their music sipping frothy matcha latte are common sight at the local Starbucks and always make great subjects for drawing.

 

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(L) – Serious discussion taking place. The guy in the centre doesn’t look amused and kept quiet through the entire conversation.

You see them day and night hunched over a pile of books, fervently highlighting something or the other with coloured markers on their notebooks with their laptops open on the side. This subculture is unique to Singapore, something I haven’t witnessed in any other country I’ve travelled to and therefore having them in my sketchbook is also special.

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(R) The rare sight of someone reading a physical book and then looking up to think about and then reading again. That’s an indie comic book in her hand and a guitar by her side.

It’s hard to imagine that only three months ago I had this incredible fear of drawing people which I write about in the post What if and how I get over it and now have come to enjoy it because it feels as if for once I’m not rushing through life and letting it pass by me but consciously stopping to smell the flowers.

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(L)- This woman had an impermanent tattoo on her hand. The word ‘Love’ written in bold with a glitter pen stood out and and yet seemed incongruous with her austere style. She was alone and seemed lost in thoughts. (R) – I spotted these two women on a late Sunday night. They were mostly gregarious but at one point I saw one of them point finger at the other in a menacing way.

Well, I don’t know where it’s going to take me and if anything will come out of this but as long as I cherish these little stolen moments and revel in the ordinary stories of ordinary people, I will continue to document them in sketchbooks and share with you. Hope you can stop by!

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(L)- A chain smoker with a lot of swagger. He didn’t care about the ‘No Smoking’ sign next to him; (R)  – My husband reading ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ on the day it got released.

 

 

 

 

 

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).

Bukit Pasoh

“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

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘Plus Five Hundred’ walks

 

The title maybe beguiling but isn’t misleading I assure you. Here’s the story.

Right after returning from our trip to New York, we were hit with severe jet lag. Time difference had throttled our body clock. It was agonising to stay awake during the day and by night time we felt so alive and active that it was impossible to sleep. So to ease back into the GMT+08:00 time zone as quickly as possible we hatched a plan and decided to execute it immediately. Being the long new year weekend, timing was perfect and the idea was simple –  we must tire ourselves so much during the day that we’d just zonk out by nightfall. But how does one make that happen?

By taking very long walks to get our morning coffee.

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Okay, hmm…but where could we go? Maybe to a cafe/bakery that opens really early and is far enough to warrant a long walk. Quick search on the internet revealed that Tiong Bahru Bakery on Eng Hoon Street is about 5kms from our house and if we set off slightly before 7 in the morning, we could be standing first in line when their door opens. Trust me, there is a line of eager beavers queuing up to grab a seat even before the door opens.

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Some of the goodies at TBB

Besides solving the problem which it was designed for, the walk itself seemed enjoyable, more than we imagined because the two bugaboos – heat and humidity were missing from the equation. Save for the construction workers, a handful of buses, bicyclists and domestic helpers speeding towards Lucky Plaza to spend their day off, the roads were empty, the street lights were on, the sky was mellow and there was a breeze that blew our hair and dried our sweat when we climbed up an incline.

About 7000 steps later we pushed through the wooden door of Tiong Bahru Bakery where giddy with self approbation (and air-conditioning), we rewarded ourselves with sugary buttery treats to accompany the beverages. I wouldn’t mention how they fared because in Singapore, the city of gourmands, the queue for food does all the talking. And there was one snaking from the already house-full cafe’s entrance door till the cash counter which revealed how popular their goodies are with the locals and expats.

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Patrons queueing up inside Tiong Bahru Bakery

Suffice it to say that if you’ve eaten here once chances are you will come back, many more times. Unless we are out of the country, this is where we can be found every Sunday morning swirling in the glistening folds of a Kouign Amann or nestling inside the flaky comfort of an Almond Croissant. Because it was so enjoyable we started walking our way back home from the cafe, making the journey a total of 10kms which should’ve made it the most salubrious habit we ever nurtured if we didn’t know counting. But since we do, here’s the math – for every 500 calories we lose on the walk we pile on 1000 more from our cloying lapse in judgement making the count, you guessed it – plus five hundred. If there’s a lesson to be learnt from this mood dampening revelation it would be to never overthink when you’re having fun.

So naturally, the plus five hundred walks are very much on. Also, should jet lag strike again, we now have the perfect antidote.

 

 

 

 

Cafe Hopping Wednesdays

Hardware Cafe on Tyrwhitt Road

Hardware Cafe on Tyrwhitt Road, Jalan Besar – convivial fuss free ambience and some seriously good coffee

For the past couple of weeks I, in the company of some talented artist friends have been cafe hopping. Yes, it’s a thing here that you can now engage in without seeming flippant. And why not? Singapore’s F&B greenhouse has been spawning some big blooming cafes for the past couple of years.

Curious Palette cafe (on the right) & Dumpling Dinner at Tim Ho Wan (on the left)

(L) Dumpling Dinner at Tim Ho Wan ; (R) Cappuccino at the spunky and hip Curious Palette cafe on Princep Street – try their waffles!

Boutique outlets serving artisanal coffee and sundry (which is more than a sidebar in this context) ranging from handcrafted ice creams, creatively conjured waffle dishes, Instagram worthy pastries, cakes, fusion burgers with clever fillings to an exhaustive range of breakfast, lunch and dining options, have been springing up all over the island.

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar

The wonderfully colourful AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar as you can see here is a treasure trove of cleverly upcycled tchochokes. They whip up some hearty yet classy meals too.

Be it hipster enclaves, sprawling heartlands or the culturally rich districts , you’re never too far from these all pervasive cafes that offer not just coffee and food but far interesting ambience compared to the cookie cutter spaces we are used to.

Pralet Cafe in Tiong Bahru, which is also a Cooking school

Caffe Pralet in Tiong Bahru, which is also a Cooking school dished out one of the best Aglio Olio I ever had

In a bid to distinguish themselves from their competitors, because truth be told everyone sells the same schtick, the cafes’ mommies and daddies dress them up in costumes they think would garner the most candies..umm..customers. Each space is a reflection of personal taste and temperament, therefore unabashedly original.

Bravery Cafe in Jalan Besar

The Bravery Cafe in Jalan Besar has Lavender Coffee!

Some are loud, cluttered, whacky, nonsensical and over the top, reminiscent of say a theme party in an antique dealer’s home or a crafts fair even, while others are unexpectedly austere, minimalistic and pedestrian like a Zen monk’s cave with spartan interiors, exposed brick lining, monochrome wall paint and a sombre looking money plant guarding the entrance.

Park Bench Deli on Telok Ayer Street

Troop to the Park Bench Deli on Telok Ayer Street to gourmandize upon sandwiches and subs with melt in the mouth fillings. The cafe’s cerulean doors always remind me of Santorini!

Whatever the design may be, from an artist’s perspective they’re almost always interesting because we like to observe and until the novelty lasts there’s a lot take in, be excited about and record in our sketchbooks. There’s air-conditioning also, which helps and sometimes a deal breaker, but you can’t judge us for that, not in Singapore.

Grain Traders (on the left) & Tiong Bahru Food Court (on the right)

(L) Grain Traders Cafe has sublime Summer Berries Crumble ; (R) Sketched this at Tiong Bahru Food Court over a chilled lime juice

Therefore every Wednesday afternoon ( Q: Why Wednesdays? A: one of us is free only on that day) we descend on a cafe, grab a table with the most flattering view and comfy seating (easily available because every corporate bigwig and their army of underlings is safely chained to their workstation at such ungodly hour) and once the waitress scoots off with our hurried orders, out comes the art-illery – sketchbooks, paints, brushes, water bottles and what not. We get to work, almost immediately.

The Daily Press Cafe (on the left) & Shophouses on Purvis street (on the right)

(L) The Daily Press Cafe ; (R) Shophouses on Purvis street

There is no small talk, no pressure of asking how astounding or meh the other’s coffee is or what he/she has been planning for the weekend. No foreplay whatsoever. We hunch over our sketchbooks and simply get on with our businesses until it gets done which brings about either a fleeting sense of smugness or lands us in a deep cesspool of self pity depending on our performance, adjudged by the harshest critic around i.e the person who’s work it is. Then we talk about sketchbooks, paper quality, drool over colours and new drawing tools, trying to sound as important and geeky as the next guy on the other table talking about commodity trading.

Creamier Cafe (on the right) & Kopitiam Dinner (on the left)

(L) Korean Dinner of Kimchi fried rice at a Kopitiam in BrasBasah (R) Creamier Cafe in Toa Payoh

Occasionally a patron on her way to the cash counter would hover, make eye contact and say nice things about our sketches. Or the cafe owner confessing his ineptitude at drawing a straight line would become maudlin after watching his precious enclave ( often injected with his entire life savings) being etched in permanent ink and would want to take a picture of our work as a keepsake, which in modern context means for instagramming purposes. Not long after basking in our brief moments in the spotlight we decide on the upcoming venue and adjourn for dinner. Until next week!

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar

AEIOU cafe in Jalan Besar

 

 

 

 

Whimsical Vowels

Sunday evenings are rife with the sweet pain of separation. The sought after ‘weekend’ buoyant and alive in your arms a moment ago grows listless and impatient as the day proceeds. You already feel the tug and in utter despair try finding ways to stretch whatever time you have with one another.

In our case, it leads to a frantic internet search for cafes, preferably somewhere we’ve never been to and can spend the evening there, reading, lounging, chatting, eating and drinking, and of course sketching till the staff puts away their aprons and chef hats and the ‘open’ sign on the front door has been flipped. In short, a place where we could save ourselves from moping till bedtime.

AEIOU Cafe

AEIOU Cafe sketch closeup

The success rate of finding such a place maybe abysmal – if the ambience works, the coffee disappoints; if coffee’s good, the chairs are stiff; if the chairs are comfy, the staff maybe unfriendly – but we do get lucky sometimes. Last week’s search yielded the names of few interesting places in the Jalan Besar area, out of which we picked ‘AEIOU’ because it’s been popping on my newsfeed a lot lately.

AEIOU Cafe

AEIOU Cafe sketch: Of all the items that were on my table and around me, I picked out some at random and designed an illustration that expresses the wonder I felt sitting among such outlandish and whimsical decor

If this cafe was a person, I’d imagine him wearing mismatched socks with self doodled converse shoes paired with black suit, pinstripe shirt and his grandfather’s beret.  He’d also have a ponytail, dyed purple and a satchel fashioned out of discarded denims or burlap sacks slapped across his shoulder. He’ll stand out in a crowd but is oh-so-sure of himself. And in the midst of gawking at this interesting bloke and trying to make sense of his persona, if you simply extend your hand, he’ll take it warmly and make you feel comfortable. That is how we felt for the rest of the evening.

AEIOU Cafe - close up

AEIOU Cafe sketch close up

“Look at our table – it’s made out of a grilled window!”, whispered my husband. The glass in which his drink appeared was a chopped off portion of Grey Goose Vodka bottle. About us were mismatched old fashioned chairs, battered drum working as a flower vase, robots made out of tin cans that used to hold salad oil, hanging lamps made of kettles and toolboxes, pipes and window frames, suspended hot air balloons that doubled as decorative plant holder, jaded 70s furniture with funky paint on them and so much more that even before we ordered, I started sketching this whimsical mess and became extremely unsociable until the ‘root vegetable fries’ arrived. My husband picked out the potatoes for himself and piled the yams and sweet potatoes on my side. This sneaky underhand tactic worked only because I loved the taste of my side of tubers.

AEIOU Cafe sketch closeup

AEIOU Cafe sketch closeup

In another two hours I finished sketching over several cups of green tea. Reluctant to leave just yet, we ordered dinner with enough apprehension. If the food was meh I would’ve let it slide because you can’t tick all the boxes plus we were already having a good time. My chicken burger with a light salad atop a dino shaped wooden platter was gourmet standard. So it scored a last minute place in the sketch before the calls of ‘last order’ came and with it all the signs and signals of closure.

Monday was inevitable and looming large. We were ready.