Tag Archives: national library

Seven sketchbooks later


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!

people 68

Tall and tattooed. Seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Singapore


people 69

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



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!




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



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.



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


people 67

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



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



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!



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



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



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.



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.



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.



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



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


people 71

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.


people 72

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.


people 73

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



Coffee in a historic shophouse, anyone?

Killiney Kopitiam

An artist’s impression of Killiney Kopitiam

Singapore is not all high-rises and glitzy malls. Occasionally, just like a mirage in a abounding desert, a series of pre war shop houses loom up on a side street which you would’ve missed, had you blinked twice. Beautifully restored, these historic gems seem stuck in time with their wide arches, thick columns, colourful louvered windows and ornate motifs.

Most of these are now homes to pricy restaurants, artisanal cafes, bars, patisseries, art galleries, designer boutiques and such, presumably for a clientele with aesthetic tastes and deep pockets. Therefore, paying little over a dollar for a cup of joe, while lounging inside one of these timeless spaces, seemed like an inexpensive way of experiencing history and local culture.

Couple of days ago, on my way back from the Singapore National library, I spotted a brick red awning that says ‘Killiney Kopitiam on Purvis Street; Established in 1919’, in the same breath. Kopitiams ( Kopi for coffee and tiam for shop) are traditional coffee shops, very popular in Southeast Asia, that serve simple meals like egg, toasts along with coffee and tea.

Something about this place, perhaps the convivial banter of families, animated conversations between friends and the murmur of hunched retirees cross-leggedly poised on wooden stools on the patio, sent a message that it’s okay to walk in without hurting your wallet.

Alice ushering guests in with a smile

Alice ushering guests in with a smile

Its spartan interiors look like a canteen from the 80s. The walls are white and bare saving few signboards with Killiney’s history, a photograph of its flagship store and few items from the menu. Handful of bright tube lights light the mosaic floor; ceiling fans creak above dark wooden tables with emerald green tops and round stools, making for a simple, unpretentious homely setting, where you are almost tempted to put your feet up and holler your mother for a cup of coffee.

Coffee inside a shophouse

Coffee inside a shophouse

“Don’t let your food get cold. You should eat quickly”, booms a matronly voice into my ear before trailing off to another table. Meet Alice Tan, the 70 year old aunt of Killiney’s owner who has lived her entire life on Purvis Street,  and has been at its helm for 12 years, right from day one.

Kopi O and a French toast served with kaya and butter

Kopi O and a French toast served with kaya and butter

The warm reprimand gets me back to my half eaten french toast. I spread a layer of butter and kaya served alongside and wash it down with the Kopi O – sweetened black coffee – from an impersonal white melamine cup. Clad in bright pink trousers and a laced shirt with a satchel slapped across her shoulders, short haired, round faced Alice has the agility of someone half her age. “When I say I am 70, the kids laugh. They say – Auntie don’t bluff ah!” she says animatedly, pointing towards some of her younger patrons. ‘Now they call me “Amah“, used to address older people, you know’.

Alice chatting away with me

Chatting away with Alice

Alice is the soul of this kopitiam that flitters about like a butterfly on a roll. One moment she rushes inside the kitchen, the next she is out, patiently resolving a staff issue before joining in the camaraderie of her patrons at a nearby table, graciously slipping off to another and asking a lone woman who just walked in about her day at the office. Nothing escapes her hawk-eyed vision and overflowing warmth. Glancing over a charming group of silver haired patrons, she says, “You see, those are Purvis Street boys, who grew up here and have been visiting my shop since it opened. These days they meet for Kopi every Monday.” They wave at me and I wave back.

Alice and the Purvis Street boys

Alice in pink and the Purvis Street boys

It seems she knows everybody, and everybody knows everybody or wants to know everybody. I am constantly greeted by patrons passing by me, with a smile, a nod that segues into short conversations. With a Starbucks loyalty card snugly tucked in my wallet, I am already bemused at the difference in scene and my experience over a simple cup of coffee or rather Kopi.

But if the modern coffee chains come with all the fancy stuff like air conditioning, plush seating, Wi-Fi and charging points, what makes such no-frill joints tick, I wonder aloud. “Personal attention”, says Alice. “I am friends with anybody who walks through that door, black or white; Indian, Chinese or Malay”. While I take a long sip of my coffee, she adds with a beaming smile, ” And now you are my friend”.

I gobble up the rest of my food and order a tall glass of lime juice to beat Singapore’s sultry weather. The Purvis Street boys are getting ready to leave and so is Alice. They wave at me and smile gleefully through their wrinkles. “Hey girl!” one calls out. I look up from my drink. ” Come back on Monday.” Maybe I will.