Tag Archives: Singapore

Craig Road shophouses

 

are fascinating as are all shophouses in Singapore that thanks to the Urban Redevelopment Authority have been beautifully restored and are feast for the eyes!

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Yesterday I was here with a friend who I didn’t see for long and in the midst of catching up on life and such we both sketched. Above is my take on Craig Road shophouses sketched with a dip pen and brown ink and colored using watercolours.

This isn’t my first sketch on Craig road and wouldn’t be my last but what’s interesting to note here is how each of these sketches have served as progress markers on my journey as an artist. And that is why when you look back and probably cringe at your last work – which I often do – you must turn around and forge ahead with gusto because even if it’s a slow and gradual process, growth is inevitable when you’re committed.

This time I’m going to take my own advice.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Discombobulated

is how I’ve been feeling over the last 72 hours. It is hard to describe but suffice it to say that my body and mind are at two different places, miles apart from one another and I, for the life of me cannot reconcile them. Tricky state to be in really, but if you knew how I got here, you may want to try it too. And I hope you do.

Well, three weeks ago this is how it all started –

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This is the first page of my concertina travel journal that I took along on the journey.

Traveling to the land of Chinggis Khan, passing through the same vast Steppes of Central Asia where he and his mighty army lived in and trampled across to conquer nearly half the world had been one of those dreams which you birth quietly while turning the pages of a history book but keep bottled up inside thinking it might be too lofty to see the light of day.

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My husband’s minion flip-flops were such a joy to draw!

But ours just clambered up into reality after years of planning. And on the way to Mongolia, we spent a week in Seoul in South Korea by hanging out at ancient palaces, sipping persimmon tea inside traditional tea houses, whizzing through local markets in search of mung bean pancakes and shopping on neon lit streets of Myeongdong.

Two destinations clubbed together on the same trip couldn’t have been more different, not just in terms of landscape and the lifestyle of people who live there but also to the degree they transformed us as travellers when we set foot on their terrain. While it was fascinating to explore the mix of quaint and cutting-edge cohabiting in Seoul, the city never pushed our boundaries or threw us out of our comfort zones as traveling in Mongolia did at certain times, especially when we were in the countryside and yet it left the most incredible and also indelible taste in our mouth.

Now that I’m back home in Singapore, there are stories to tell and sketches to share from this epic journey of ours but not until I can steer my mind away from where it is comfortably dwelling, which is here –

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View of Ulaanbataar city from our room in the hotel (Tip – Request for a room on a high floor with mountainside view if you stay at Shangri-la, UB)

and (mostly) here –

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The ubiquitous Steppes of Mongolia

here –

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A lone Ger on the Steppes

…and here –

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Horses running wild in the vast Steppes

From our apartment window in Singapore I can only ever see a sliver of sky squished in between two Goliath high rises. Sigh! But then again I have access to running water, privacy, ensuite bathroom and high speed wi-fi. It may not be very long until you hear from me again, after all.

 

 

Had people watching

been a competitive sport, the shelves in my house would be heaving under the weight of trophies. It’s true! Given the bonafide introvert I am, observing the world keenly from inside my bubble of solitude has always been my schtick, perfected with years of practice starting with those long train journeys my family took during school holidays when I’d keep myself endlessly entertained while my sister and parents nodded off as soon as the train moved.

Between looking out the window and reading or pretending to read, I’d scrutinize fellow passengers, examining their face, expression, posture, hairstyle, attire, demeanour, language, idiosyncrasies, almost anything I could see, hear, smell or touch and build colourful profiles in my mind and fine tune them as I gathered more information. If someone snacked, I’d take a peek at what they were eating, if someone spoke I’d try to discern the accent or diction, if someone read, well, you can tell a lot from the kind of book/magazine a person reads. By the time my parents woke I could single out the person most likely to be trusted with our bags while we took a trip to the toilet.

It wasn’t just entertaining and edifying (from a sociological perspective) but a great way to feed a curious mind. It still is.

Replace the stifling railway cabins with university dorms, doctor’s chamber, social gatherings, long queues at taxi stands and now cafes – my  venue of choice for practicing flânerie with all the flair it deserves.

This is where I must tip my hat to the French for coining a word for ‘sauntering aimlessly’ but (mind you!) not mindlessly and thank early 19th century flâneur writers such as Balzac and Zola who strolled the grand boulevards of Paris actively observing passersby for raising a seemingly frivolous practice of ‘people watching’, the prerogative of the indolent, up the lexicographical and social ladder to an art form even.

And to cultivate this pursuit in the same spirit, this 21st century denizen has picked up sketchbooks, pens, watercolours, crayons and what not.  Observing manners and mores of people can be amusing but immortalising them in drawings is certainly more gratifying. All these drawings done on location capture fleeting moments that I, the flaneuse had witnessed on several occasions over the last month.

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(L) This old man had ordered an incredible number of pastries which he finished at lightening speed before his wife ambled into the cafe. All she saw was a cup of coffee on the table.  (R) My husband reading on his kindle while I was drawing.

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(L) This bald guy in green had a very difficult discussion with the woman sitting opposite him. After she stormed out, he looked extremely despondent.

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These three guys who I drew around my husband (to keep him company on the page) were having a heated political discussion about the relation between China and Hong Kong.

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(L) This old guy wearing very colourful clothes and a funky hairstyle with spikes seemed like someone who did not want to age at all.

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(L) A little girl making her daddy feed her soft toy before she agrees to take a bite! (R) My husband reading a Jo Nesbo thriller.

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(R) A Starbucks employee on a cigarette break. He looked exhausted and seemed to be contemplating something.

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(L) A studious guy with the most innocent smile had three fingers missing from his left hand, but he couldn’t care less. (R) From his formal attire, this guy looked like someone straight from work winding down at the cafe. He was tapping really hard on his phone screen.

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Two intense gamers who looked liked they were in a serious relationship

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(L) I couldn’t hear what she was saying but whatever it was, she was saying it with plenty of gusto. Don’t miss the clenched fist!

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(R) The cafe I walked into had at least 30 people plugged in to their laptops, tapping away at the keyboard with a drink on the side. They looked like corporate clones.

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This guy had really tiny hands which seemed to have a life of their own. His audience (whom I didn’t get to draw) were at the receiving end of his frantic gesticulations.

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(R) The girl was reading, writing, consulting a book, listening to music, checking her phone drinking latte all at the same time.

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She said : “So if I die, you get 2 million?”. He said, “..Yes, that’s right, in Singapore dollars”.

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Spied upon two guys with pompous hairstyles. They had an incredible number of wires coming out of their various devices.

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She threw away every bit of trash on her table into the garbage can and wiped the table clean before leaving. It says a lot about the person.

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(L) This hip grandma was fawning over her grandchild the entire time. She was wearing green eye shadows and just before leaving she touched up her makeup, put on red lipstick and gave me a thumbs up for drawing her. (R) A guy who kept fidgeting and sweating in his chair until he couldn’t take it anymore and left.

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Just two guys chilling at our neighbourhood Starbucks.

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People eating lunch at a food court on Orchard Road. And since we’re in SE Asia, you see a a lot of noodle bowls and chopsticks.

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A guy wolfing down his breakfast.

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Ending this series with the sketch of this very cute grandma I found dozing at a cafe yesterday. She was waiting for her granddaughters to finish shopping and fetch her.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

What if

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…I had a key that could open my head so I could put in and take out anything I wanted? This bewitching thought that I’ve been mulling over came to me from something I read two weeks ago. In Vol. 2 of Joe Hill’s epic comic book series called Locke and Key, one of the characters named Kinsley dug out all her fears and the ability to cry while her older brother Tyler jammed in textbooks to ace school exams!

 

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If I were to play along and assume that the lid on my head was off, what would I put in? After a bout of gruelling self-assessment I came up with the answer which believe it or not is ‘nothing’. Yes, I’d pass it up, coz I can’t bear sabotaging the masochistic sense of achievement I derive from learning anything new. I revel in that sort of thing. But, that’s just me.

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On the other hand there’s a lot I want to get rid of. All kinds of fears starting from facing a blank page to a room full of people at a party. A long standing one has been that of drawing people. I sort of stiffen when faced with this task and the lack of spirit shows in the drawing and then these insipid drawings gnaw at my courage to start afresh. Hence the beguiling temptation of this fantasy key.

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Fantasy it may be, but what if it’s also a metaphor for our willingness to open our minds? What if a single turn of this key can unlock our courage to explore new ideas, challenge our beliefs and make mistakes, learn from them and then build up confidence? I put the key to test. In other words I started drawing even more people and in a style that felt most natural to me and decided to focus only on the process, enjoy it without worrying about results.

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These 5 drawings above are the fruits of my dogged efforts and reflect my altered mindset. I used watercolours and crayons to make the process even more exciting and developed this gestural style that I’m growing quite fond of and wish to explore further. Rest assured there’s going to be one overworked key in this house!

 

 

The go-to subject

 

is an essential element in a sketch artist’s life.

It is something or someone that we mindlessly and repetitively draw all the time, an easily accessible model that has offered itself unequivocally to Art. I have friends who fill their sketchbook’s pages with drawings of inanimate objects such as vegetables, dinosaur toys, shoes and crockeries and this arrangement is simple because a potato couldn’t possibly have an opinion unless it’s playing a crabby spud in Toy Story. Then of course, we know how it feels.

But if you’re after a sentient being, ask yourself as I have – who is that person that can stand endless hours of gawking, isn’t fidgety, holds a pose just long enough and doesn’t flinch even when the image you created is a travesty, in fact – and this is important and also a bonus – can find creative ways to offer approval ?

For me, it is this guy below, although he’s still working on the ‘offering approval’ part as I am on my drawling skills.

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Two new entries

have been made into my ever expanding repertoire of cafe sketches. As temperatures soar and humidity grows to impossible heights, that’s all I seem to be doing on a weekly basis – hide in air-conditioning, drink tea with fancy names (e.g Nymph of  the Nile) and draw. I should try harder at striking the ‘struggling artist’ image, I know. Maybe next time. Till then meet –

The Provision Shop at Everton Park – it’s cute, cozy, comfy, has a homely, convivial feel to it and smells of coffee and bread. The staff is super friendly.

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and

Stranger’s Reunion cafe on Kampong Bahru Road, which on the other hand is spacious, chic, has a touch of hushed elegance associated with fine dining restaurants and smells of truffle fries. The staff seemed slightly distant and reserved but they served tea in pristine white victorian style teapots which was an acceptable trade off for me.

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A snack and a dessert

Last week while lunching with my sketcher pals at Tiong Bahru Hawker Center, I had two new additions to my ever expanding knowledge of local dishes.

I was ploughing through a plate of noodles topped with roasted pork slices and a bowl of clear soup with light fluffy wantons floating on the surface when Paul landed a plate of Chwee Kweh and a bowl of cooling Cheng Teng on our table and said, “try these”. He seemed rather pleased and glanced over his loot with such undeniable sense of achievement that I wondered if mountains were moved and demons were slain to win these back from the dragon’s den! Pretty close actually, considering the heat, humidity and long lunch time queues he must have endured to score some of this hawker center’s best offerings.

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Chwee Kweh, a white muffin shaped item (top right on my sketchbook) is a kind of steamed rice cake which was served on waxed paper and seemed bland by itself but when eaten with the salty, garlicky preserved radish relish, it hit all the right notes. “It’s a very popular snack in Singapore”, said my friends understandably when they saw me stealing second, third..fifth helpings. I managed a muffled “mmm…hmm” in between mouthfuls. They withdrew their chopsticks gently and let me finish every last bit of it.

Cheng Teng, sketched on the bottom right wasn’t an instant hit, maybe because I’m not big on desserts but what won me over eventually were its mild sweetness (from rock sugar) and cooling nature. The dish looked like brown frozen soup in a glass bowl filled with a slew of goodies known to have health benefits like gingko nuts, dried longan, winter melons, dried persimmon, sago, barley pearls, red dates and such, making it a dessert that you can sip and chew and have fun with, apparently. Paul kept asking me to dig deep with my spoon to scoop up the dried fruits along with the frozen soup and every time I did, we checked what was unearthed. “Look, persimmons.. there, get the water chestnut, quick! Aw.. it slipped. Try again”.

 

 

 

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.