may sound oxymoronic in isolation but in the context of my creative life, it is the most heartening spin-off.
Just the other day I was at Newton Food Centre, a popular hawker centre in Singapore to tend to an urgent and irrepressible desire of eating handmade meatball noodles. And to combat the heat from the red chillies floating in my gravy I ordered a glass of lime juice from San Ren Cold and Hot Dessert Stall, where in between taking orders the lady boss was brashly chopping water chestnuts with a gleaming pocket knife on the same table where I was seated.
The lady from San Ren Hot and Cold Dessert Stall chopping water chestnuts
Even though we were only a few inches apart, as far as she was concerned I was a fly on the wall. But to me she was a fine subject, one that I hoped would hold her posture long enough to warrant a quick sketch.
“Drawing me, ah?” she said to no one in particular. The words were tossed in the air for someone, mostly me because I was the only one sketching, to catch and respond. When I looked up I wondered to myself if I had ever in the past wanted someone’s tightened jaws and deeply furrowed eyebrows to relax so badly. All across the table lay freshly hacked pieces of water chestnuts.
Only the ones sealed inside transparent packets with green trimmings remained whole and even they knew what was coming and shrivelled a little in fright. Not wanting to share the fate of mutilated chestnuts I said to the lady as bravely as I could that I hoped she didn’t mind me drawing her.
But I doubt she heard me because I didn’t hear myself.
(L) A San Ren Dessert stall patron eating Cheng Tng
My mumble was cut short by another retort, not directed at me, yet again. I was still the fly on the wall. “Looks like me ah!..come, look, look” said San Ren’s lady boss and the tormenter of countless water chestnuts in an urgent tone to a uniformed elderly cleaning lady who was clearing our table.
In exchange of a short cursory nod she had pulled my sketchbook away from my hands and was coarsely flipping through the pages.
The white haired cleaning lady joined in and because we didn’t speak each other’s language instead of words she offered me the sweetest smile of approval and chuckled with glee at my most recent work. Then she summoned every stall owner within 50 feet to check out what I was doing.
An elderly cleaning lady (in uniform) at Newton Food Centre aka ‘auntie’ flipping through my sketchbook.
Meanwhile having retrieved my sketchbook I got back to work again. A patron of San Ren dessert stall was wolfing down a sweet bowl of Cheng Tng. I sketched him and then some random people waiting for their food or eating but it was becoming increasingly difficult to carry on.
When sketching people I try to be as discreet as possible, so as to not make my subjects uncomfortable in any way but this is hard when you have a conspicuous audience made up of bulky, oil stained shorts and t-shirt clad, cleaver wielding stall owners smelling of garlic, palm oil and sambal standing behind you, rather hunched over, following every mark you make on your sketchbook and immediately matching it with the subject by looking at that person directly in the face until he or she feels like a mounted taxidermy exhibit.
Lunching at Newton Food Centre
From their enthusiastic nods and thumps ups, I knew my hawker center audience meant well but any one I tried to sketch under their intense scrutiny left in a jiffy. “Sketch auntie’, ordered San Ren’s lady boss offering the elderly cleaning lady to be my next subject.
I didn’t fail to notice that the knife and the water chestnuts had been put away. Maybe she was finally warming up to me and if sketching ‘auntie’ would keep the knife under wraps I was happy to oblige. Only auntie didn’t have the luxury of posing for a portrait. Dirty plates beckoned. So we parted with a hug. When her kind eyes met mine, I think she seemed a little proud of me.
Newton Food Centre, Singapore
I went to Newton Food Centre that day to fill my belly but came back with a fuller heart. It is true of every country I visit or every place I go with my sketchbook. It does not matter if I speak the language or not, whether I look like the locals or not, just by sitting among people and drawing in their midst I’ve been accepted and spurred on by total strangers, even the ones that don’t bond so easily.
As I got up to leave, the San Ren lady spoke again.”Come back soon”. It sounded more like a grunt than an entreaty. Only this time she looked straight at me.