Tag Archives: painting

Coffee with kids in tow? Maybe!

Eat Play Love Cafe

I have always been amused by the predicament of folks visiting cafes with small kids. Unless the child is tiny enough to be strapped to a stroller with a pacifier inside its mouth – basically tied and gagged – parents have a problem. Okay, not so much a problem, but a challenge, a herculean task, of engaging a pint sized energy ball with the attention span of a hummingbird such that it is sedentary, at least for a little while so they can sip at their drinks and let their sleep deprived minds wander.

Now, if there are pigeons in the vicinity of the cafe, which is quite common in Singapore, that is good news, not for everybody though. These urban birds are the least flighty and the most purposeful creatures I have come across on this island. They have adapted surprisingly well with the country’s economic boom and change in lifestyle. Instead of gouging out worms from the soil (which is so last century!) they swoop down on molten chocolate cakes or puff pastries lying in front of unsuspecting patrons and parade in between tables, hawk-eyed, puff-chested and taut-bodied, without a tinge of remorse.

And it is this sight of pigeons marching on the tarmac, that holds an universal appeal to kids across the world. They would tear away from protective arms, squeal in ecstacy and scuttle after the birds, who are surprisingly unflustered, till they are about to be stepped on, which is when they spread their wings and fly few meters away only to be chased again. This hobnobbing can continue for hours, giving enough time and space for the guardians to ‘keep calm and enjoy their drink’.

However, if thou cannot spoteth pigeons, do not despair. I have also watched anguished parents slowly relinquish their grip on electronic tablets or smartphones and surrendering them to tiny hands that urgently tap away at them for hours on end. So there is that. Another trade-off for solitude and a cup of coffee.

Some make their kids carry homework or sketchbooks to cafes. But that doesn’t quite cut it. While you sit back, relax and are about to zone out with the steaming cuppa, the last thing you need is to be badgered for help in Math or to be asked what crayon to use to paint the hut. This is also when the spouse flashes the ‘I told you so’ look.

With a thriving cafe culture in the country, new cafes sprouting like mushrooms, and Time Out featuring yet another list of ‘best cafes on the island’, I was surprised some entrepreneurial 20-something-Melbourne returned-grad student hadn’t thought of catering to this niche already. With a book cafe (“a book themed cafe that offers a relaxed ambience and casual dining”) and even a cat cafe (‘we strive to give you the perfect combination of cats, coffee, tea and pastries‘) around, it seemed such an oversight. Untill one day I stepped inside ‘Eat Play Love’ on 28 Aliwal Street.

Eat Play Love

For S$5, kids get 2 hours of unlimited access to Eat Play Love cafe’s collection of crafts

From the taxi’s window, this calm cerulean blue space, fitted with wooden hand painted furniture and vintage signages, barrage of colourful crafts, toys and knick knacks looked especially eye catching. Once inside, prepare to be drowned in the cacophony of gleeful kids huddled at a crafts table – playing, painting, sketching, sticking, cutting, wrapping and what not, all by themselves. Their guardians have the peaceful look of a Zen monk. Life’s sorted.

However, if you’re there minus the bambino, well, a slightly uncomfortable feeling akin to showing up for class without books, may tug at your sleeve. Obviously, you cannot share or borrow these metaphorical books! But thankfully the cafe has enough room for you to slink away from the hubbub, grab a table by the window, sip a latte or aromatic tea infusion, read a book, paint and chit chat with your spouse.







Nanyin Concert at Singapore’s Oldest Temple

Sketching has its perks, specially in this country because you get invited to all sorts of interesting events, that you otherwise wouldn’t have a clue about. Well, it might not be entirely true for everybody, considering  how well networked and resourceful some people are, but being an expatriate trying to get intimate with the country she is living in, invitations to events featuring local history, culture, heritage and people in some way or the other is serendipity dropping into your hands like a ripe plum.
And what better way to explore a country intimately than sketching your backyard and writing about it, specially if it’s a diverse 710 sq km city state, that you can cross via subway in less than two hours! The possibilities are endless, although I didn’t harbour this mindset two years back when like many others I was trapped in the hamster wheel of shopping malls, food courts,  boutique cafes and movie theatres. That’s all there is to do in Singapore, I thought.
But somehow, this simple attempt at documenting life through sketching has freed me off the nasty blinkers. Since then, I have befriended locals and heard their stories, observed their diurnal rhythms, their idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, their pidgin lingo, their obsession with food, their materialism and altruism, their traditions and customs – those celebrated widely with pomp across the island as well as those that falter at the brink of oblivion, their collective sense of pride and also their anxiousness,  their self expression, their drive to grow, develop, compete and succeed both globally and locally and also their struggle to conserve their identity and heritage in the wake of urbanisation and immigration.
Not just sketching, but sketching with a purpose has opened my eyes.
My impression of Thian Hock Keng Temple

Artist’s impression of Thian Hock Keng Temple

My sketch reportage of many such events I’d been invited to, though disparate – like recording the make-up session of a Teochew opera group, or trying my hand at wrapping rice dumplings at a Taoist temple, or drinking coffee at a shophouse kopitiam or visiting a heritage Peranakan house and so on – have brought me closer to understanding the country I live in. And what more, the equation is symbiotic – while the invitee gets an interesting premise to sketch and talk about,  the inviter gets to promote a cause or create awareness, which brings me to the courtyard of Thian Hock Keng Temple, on 158 Telok Ayer Street, where I along with other fellow sketchers have gathered upon one such invitation – to sketch and see a Nanyin concert performed on the temple premises only thrice a year by Siong Leng Musical Association.
Sitting in a lone corner in the outer courtyard,  this girl was practicing her flute right before the concert began.

Sitting in a lone corner in the outer courtyard, this girl was practicing her flute right before the concert began.

It is not everyday that you experience centuries old and preserved art form, performed against an equally historic backdrop, so I took the bait the moment it appeared in my newsfeed.  The temple’s location couldn’t have been more incongruous, with sparkling high-rises, nifty eateries and watering holes in the vicinity. I wanted to slow down and process the interesting juxtaposition but instead was taking long strides towards the temple, to catch some of the receding light and start sketching before it hit 7. Because at 7 in the evening, the sun goes down in this country, every single day of the year with such mundane consistency that can only be managed if you’re just a degree away from of the equator.

By the time I post myself by a kerb opposite the magnificent facade of the temple, a gigantic truck plonks itself in front and blocks my view. Cars are zipping past and waves of people are making their way from work, without so much as glancing at the imposing green tiled roofs and the multicoloured motifs, the fiery dragons charging at the sky, the carved pillars and the massive red lanterns. It is amusing to even imagine that in 1820, when the temple used to be a humble joss house, early immigrants from Fukien Province in China,  who’d voyaged across the turbulent South China Sea, flocked in to offer their gratitude to Ma Zhu – the goddess of the sea, even before they went scouting for work and shelter. Before land reclamation of 1880, Telok (bay in Malay) Ayer( water in Malay) was the seafront!
The stage being set up for the concert
From where I stand, I can see plastic chairs being arranged and the stage being set up for the concert. TV crews are interviewing the organisers and the glare from their portable LED light is gushing out through the massive wooden doors and blinding my vision. Dodging the parked truck and the dazzling light, I further shift my vantage point and begin sketching the facade. But darkness has fallen on the city. I struggle to capture the relief patterns on the roof ridges that have been rendered using chien nien technique, a Fujian architectural stylewhich involves breaking unusable pottery and porcelain to create beautiful three-dimensional work.
That’s when Paul, a fellow urban sketcher quipped, “Don’t go for the details, try to capture the essence”. He made it look simple with his casual yet bold strokes that told the story and held it back at the same time for the onlooker to be amused and bemused – a dab of yellow for the blinding light, few sinuous strokes for the temple’s roof, some dark shadows around the threshold and so on. But for some, simplifying isn’t all that simple. The left brain kicks up a storm when you try working at a scene holistically, leaving hints here and there like breadcrumbs leading to a revelation, rather than getting sucked into the details and showing all your cards. The left brain implores you to mark and annotate every stone, tile, wood and all the amazing carvings, intricate sculptures, imposing columns and the decorations with dragons and phoenixes. I try to heed Paul’s advice and try to sketch and paint from what I feel, rather than what I see or straining to see. It isn’t easy.
In the temple courtyard, a stage has been set with mikes, stools, projectors and floodlights, the participants are hustling up, some donning make-up, some straightening the creases of their flowing costumes and fixing their hair. A volunteer hurriedly places the concert schedule on every chair. The musical instruments – pie, pipa, samhen, xiao, lihen are lined at the corner, waiting to be picked up. Guests are streaming in, taking places incoherently. A young girl, away from the action is practicing her bamboo flute and shaking her head in indignation, every time she hits a wrong note.
Nanyin in progress. The audience is enthralled.

Nanyin in progress. The audience is captivated.

Nanyin, which literally means the ‘music of the south’ has originated from the southern Chinese province of Fujian and is one of the oldest music genres of China that still exists. The music is soft, gentle and graceful – something that would seep through the pores of your skin and serenade you and fill your senses to the hilt. As the music trickled into the temple’s ancient courtyard, the audience – a motley crew of young and old, locals and foreigners, residents and tourist – sat enthralled and motionless, which was perfect for sketching.
Understanding the lyrics would’ve heightened my experience, because most of the time it felt like standing at the edge of an alluring pool and not knowing how to swim. Perhaps, my inability kept me rooted to the task at hand without getting emotionally invested. On that night, I let the music guide my pen.
Nanyin performers at Thian Hock Keng

Nanyin performers at Thian Hock Keng

Visiting Singapore’s Baba House

Facade of Baba House, drawn with a bamboo stick

Facade of Baba House, drawn with a bamboo stick

The Setting
The old British couple was posted right before a dark wooden cupboard. An American man, probably in his middle age was sitting on a decorative oriental chair, hunched over a notepad and pen, the Russian dame in a sleeveless maxidress was leaning against the heavy ornamental door, arms akimbo and a fidgety Spanish duo of mother and daughter with disheaveled hair and brutally sunburnt arms and face was just waiting for it to start and then finish, so they could go back to their hotel, put a tick on their list of things to visit in Singapore and order room service. Then there was the suave Australian couple – the man in a tailored suit and the blond woman in a red dress with long distracting legs emerging from it, poised on the short rotund chairs in the middle of the room. I was of course with my sketchbook and pen lingering at the back, trying to read them as much as they would let me.
It felt like walking into one of those penultimate scenes in the small screen adaptations of Agatha Christie stories, where the inimitable Poirot has called upon the suspects in the living room so he could unfurl the mystery. My ears are almost tuned in to hear the rising crescendo of David Suchet’s voice – “Mesdames et Messieurs, it’s time to reveal the truth about this terrible crime” – and finally pinning down the murderer – “After everybody left, it was you Mr. Doyle, who picked up the gun, ran along the deck and shot your wife in her sleep.”
A tap on the shoulder requesting me to deposit my bag before the tour, broke my post-lunch reverie. Egg-headed Poirot had been replaced by grey-haired Chia Hock Jin, our amicable tour guide and I along with the other ‘suspects’ were crowding inside the remarkably restored living room of ‘Baba House’, the ancestral home ( built around 1895) of a wealthy Peranakan shipping merchant Wee Bin.
The Peranakan Story
Having introduced himself, Hock Jin warmed us up with a short history of the Peranakans, which started with the settling of Chinese merchants in the Straits of Malacca during the 15th century, who began integrating certain traits of local Malayan culture into their own Chinese heritage, thus giving birth to a distinctive hybrid culture with an identity of its own. By the 19th century, the Peranakans were mostly working as intermediaries between the mainland Chinese traders and the Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial traders, thus amassing immense wealth, which they spent lavishly in building such elaborately decorated houses.  “They were sending their children to English medium schools rather than Chinese schools, or abroad for tertiary education or professional qualifications, so when they were back they could join the British administration.” said Hock Jin with arms deep inside his trouser pockets.
The Facade 
Leading us out of the drawing room through the main door, Hock Jin insisted, we take a closer look at the cobalt blue facade of the house with red gable and pitch roof, and not just admire its many architectural components for their beauty but understand their significance and symbolism as well. “Houses in those days were not numbered, so to understand who lived where, all you had to do was look at the facade”, he says, pointing at the two lanterns which have the origin of the family and surname of the resident written on them in winding strokes. The Chinese signboard with golden characters above the main door spell out the name of the house – ‘Everlasting Prosperity’. Motifs of peonies and phoenix on the facade, signify prosperity, peace, good wealth and luck. Hock Jin has been cupping a canary yellow ceramic bowl, which he suddenly holds out in public view. “Notice those friezes below the louvered windows? Those were made from tiny ceramic chips of different colours.”
The facade seems deceptively narrow for its wealthy owners but Hock Jin reassures that the house is much longer inside than what its entrance suggests. “During the Dutch rule, property owners were taxed as per the width of the frontage”.
Hock Jin standing in front of the Living Room alter

Hock Jin standing in front of the Living Room alter

Living Room
“The living room is where the patriarch entertains his guests” begins our guide as we make our way inside again. Ornately carved Qing dynasty blackwood furnitures with mother of pearl inlay frames border the room on all sides giving it a rich luxurious feel; dainty ceramic vases, porcelain figurines and crockery adorn the corners atop side tables and cupboards; decorative venetian mirrors hang from the walls, an Austrian round table and chairs set, popular in the 19th century, sits at the centre while one of the four family altars that every Peranakan house must have, is placed at the head of the room facing the main corridor. Despite the heat and humidity outside, the dark interiors help in keeping the temperatures down.
“Feng Shui played an important role in the design of the house in those days. Do you know why there are two side entrances from this drawing room into the house?” Most nod their heads in negative.”So any bad energy that barges into the house through the front door, dissipates before flowing inside.” More fascinating details stumble out of our guide that we greedily lap up – demons tend to shuffle their feet and the high threshold serves as a hurdle for them to trip and fall if they enter the house, or the mirrors are hung so when the demon looks at his reflection, he realises how ugly he is and leaves pronto!
Family Room of Baba House

Family Room of Baba House

Family Room
“The women and the children were not allowed in the living room in those days. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t see what was happening here”, says Hock Jin with a obscure smile as he points at the small openings in the carved wooden partition screen dividing the first and the second hall, through which unmarried Nonyas could peep through. The Family Hall was the matriarch’s domain, where the second altar was kept along along with a cupboard that stored ancestral tablets with recordings of the family’s eldest son’s birth details, through several generations. Elaborately painted portraits of the Wee family adorns the walls. The architecture is predominantly tropical with a refreshing airwell on the side that also helps keep the house cool. “This is where the family well was supposed to be but since this house is on a slope, the well is at the back.” explains our guide.
After the extravagant and slightly dark living room, the unexpected indoor-outdoor feel of the family room is refreshing. “Design of Peranakan houses always account for the five elements of Feng Shui – wood, fire, earth, metal and water” says Hock Jin, as we scrutinize the interesting amalgamation of Eastern and Western architectural elements. The colourful tiles lining the wall of the air well were distinctly British, there’s a buddhist swastik in the room and an attractive white panel on the wall with Chinese zodiac signs etched on it.   


Hock Jin leads the group from the family room to a surprisingly sparse kitchen with brightly coloured Nonya cooking paraphernalia neatly displayed – lacquered stackable meal containers, scarlet coloured dishes, cups, jars, vases, dessert moulds, a traditional grinding stone along with an oven from yesteryears with metal woks stacked atop, a mortar and pestle, and a blue ceramic kettle. The alter of the kitchen god is affixed to the wall, as if to oversee and bless the laborious cooking of mouthwatering Nonya dishes.
Second Floor Bedrooms
A flight of wooden stairs lead us to the highly polished second floor with more Chinese dark wood furnitures and two bedrooms, one of which is a bridal chamber, dedicated to the 12 day ritual of Peranakan weddings.  Just like the living room, the bridal chamber is flamboyant with an exquisitely carved, lacquered and gilded canopied bed from 19th century with motifs featuring fertility symbols. Across the room are several ornate armoires for storing the bride’s sarongs, kebayas, handkerchiefs and so on.  The most intriguing feature that hooked the tour group was the peephole on the floor, that gave an unobstructed view of the living room and the main door. “So a Peranakan wife could see all who came to call on her husband.” says Hock Jin to his audience, now sitting on their haunches, trying to shove their face into a tiny gap on the floor.

Bridal Chamber

Bridal Chamber

End of Story? Not quite!
The tour ends on the third floor which houses a contemporary exhibition on Batik. “Please feel free to look around” says, Hock Jin and offers a perfunctory “thank you” for taking his tour, which sends the Spanish mother and daughter scooting down the stairs towards the exit. Others follow, making thumping sounds on the wooden steps as they climb down. But some of us linger around Hock Jin because his eager eyes haven’t dulled yet. He might have more to say if we poke the fire. He begins talking about the Great Depression of 1930s, when prices of tin and rubber on which the Peranakans heavily relied, fell rock bottom. The two world wars dealt heavy blows to Peranakan wealth, status and influence (as loyal British subjects, they contributed to the wars by making considerable donations), when many fell into poverty and had to sell off their landed houses and family heirlooms. “Then came the Rent control Act of 1947” says Hock Jin, pausing briefly. This mandated the rent of pre war houses like this, to be controlled in Singapore, and in effect frozen, resulting in further deterioration of income.
In 1966, Lee Kuan Yew’s government enacted the land acquisition act, to promote urban renewal, which empowered the government to acquire land for compensation, to be paid on a predetermined formula. Pre-war houses made way for high rises. “Many Peranakans converted to Christianity in the 1940s and 50s, women started working after the war and gradually with urbanisation, intermarriages and modernisation, the Peranakan culture stagnated and their identity suffered”, says Hock Jin, with eyes cast on the parquet floor.
Howver, the recent years have marked a conscious revival in all things Peranakan, with the conservation of heritage Straits Chinese buildings, with exhibitions showcasing the Peranakan way of life, with growing interest in the language, food, attire; and with restaurants serving Peranakan cuisine and antique shops selling artefacts such as silverware, beads slippers, porcelain, furnitures etc cropping up across Singapore. “Restoring Baba House and opening it to the public was one such revival effort” says Hock Jin.

Looking up at windows


I have always been fascinated by windows, although I wonder why? If I’m carrying my art paraphernalia, more often than not, I’ll seize the opportunity of sketching them. And thankfully, there are plenty of alluring windows across the world to keep me busy, from contemporary sleek designs that are minimalist and functional to traditional, ornate and decorative ones with superfuous embellishments.

For example the woven bamboo windows in Japan, Gothic windows, stained glass windows, casements, tilt and turn windows in the West, classical chinese windows, louvered windows in  tropical countries or Arab world’s projecting oriel windows enclosed and carved with exotic wood latticework. Some are functional while others are pieces of fine craftsmanship.

But then, could it just be the physical attributes – shape, colour, form, design that render windows as interesting subjects and make them sketchworthy? I reckon, my fascination is beyond the superficial. There must be something deeper.

Besides their make which is anything but monotonous, windows assume a character often borrowed from the environment they are in and evoke an immediate sense of place. Like these louvered windows of Straits Chinese shophouses in Singapore’s Chinatown (in the picture above) which by themselves are interesting no doubt but when laced with a string of red lanterns around their neck, during the ongoing mid-autumn festival, they look bright eyed, coiffed and spruced up. They seem to be rejoicing, perhaps singing a happy song!

Bordeaux Window

In addition to the ethos they live in, windows also assume a character that is refracted by the souls that live behind them, open and close them or peer through them, which could be anything from cheerful to doleful, nifty to sloppy, careful to negligent and is left to the imagination of the onlooker like me to interpret in a hundred ways.

Like this window in Bordeaux, south of France (in the sketch above), that caught my eye not just because of the ornate Gothic architecture encasing it and the filigreed balcony though both make it an attractive subject but because of the colourful pinwheel spinner that separates it from others in the same building. The pinwheel lends it the character of being cheerful, lighthearted, playful, romantic perhaps; and it hints at a story that is open for speculation. Did a little girl tie it there when she was playing in the balcony? or was it relegated as a window decoration by the old man whose grandchildren forgot to pack it in when they left? Maybe the newly weds who just moved in, bought it at the village fair and put it there? I would never know but I adore the touch of mystery that tickles the mind.

windows 3

I’ve seen windows with clothesline slapped across their chests with pinafores, socks, drawers and vests fluttering in the sun, while many have potted plants and flowers set outside them, or a handcrafted easter egg, a gnome, pair of toads, an wooden owl or a fiery crystal dragon resting on their sil – all lending character, telling stories, making them fascinating to absolute strangers. Some windows have gnarled black cables criscrossing their face while some share a patch of rampant vegetation growing from the corner of a drainpipe running alongside. Sometimes on a chilly winter evening the sight of a half drawn lace curtain inside a glazed casement window, hinting at warm bodies moving unsteadily lets you believe in possibilities as many as your mind can conjure.

Perhaps that is why I am fascinated by windows because not only are they attractive in their own right, they don’t impose on your imagination as rigid unflinching objects, rather feed off it as volatile subjects arousing a multitude of sentiments in each one of us who looks at them with a different eye and that is enough for a creative person to pick up a pen and sketch them pronto.

windows 4