Tag Archives: Straits Baroque

Why I didn’t bake the cake..

Every year, on my husband’s birthday I prepare an elaborate meal that I am really proud of, and a very basic chocolate cake that somehow scrapes by. Now I am not much of a baker and it’s a breeze to order a fancy, much superior cake from the store. But I don’t do the obvious, however tempting that is. There’s an undeniable masochistic pleasure in attempting something I am averse to for someone I care about! Hence the arduous whipping and whirling.

This year however, my conviction was intercepted. Gifts were wrapped, the meal was prepped and planned, the dessert was setting in the refrigerator and I almost had the cake in the bag. That’s when I heard about the monthly urban sketching event occurring at and around one of the grandest buildings of Singapore – Raffles Hotel. Hanging out with fifty art enthusiasts sketching, sharing ideas, getting inspired or solitary whipping and whirling in the kitchen? Filling juicy double spreads in my Moleskine or watching an egg and flour concoction rise? Easy right?

Raffles Hotel

Raffles Hotel sketched from the front

The grandeur of hotel’s colonial architecture matched with the placid greenery of the travellers palms and sweet scented frangipanis, still harks back to the romance of 19th and 20th century travel when writers, historians, explorers and sojourners showed up in their schooners, eager to ‘discover’ the exotic East and booked their stay at this place.

A beautifully curated in-house museum, which unfortunately is closed now, housed vivid memorabilia of the yesteryears – handwritten postcards, luggage labels, old photographs, guidebooks, hotel brochures, advertisements, posters that gave visitors a glimpse into the lives of the boarders who romped around these corridors, waltzed in the ballroom, nursed tall glasses of Singapore Sling in the Long Bar and wrote passionately (Hint: Somerset Maugham) in the tranquility of the outdoor verandas overlooking the Palm Court.

Amid the modern landscape – which has changed heaps since 1887 when Raffles Hotel was established – this little oasis on Beach Road looks like a stubborn time capsule. It is this incongruity that excites me every time I walk into the property past the tall liveried Sikh guards manning it’s doors since the days of yore. Over the years, land reclamation has pushed the waterfront further away and instead of jinrikshaws and hackney carriages, fancy cars are pull up the driveway.

Plonked on a sidewalk, I sketch this scene for over an hour, losing myself in the immense neo-Renaissance architectural details that doesn’t meet the eye when you look at the facade but magically unveil when you try to capture on paper. The Sikh guard came over twice to check my progress.

Seah Street

Seah Street

Seah Street adjoining Raffles hotel is the example of a typical Singaporean street that I love to sketch because of its potent mishmash of extremes. The architecture segues from Straits Baroque to Art Decco, the businesses range from hipster pubs and bistro bars to pedestrian chicken rice stalls, punctuated with old Chinese clan associations and trade centers, all in one row, cheek by jowl, sharing walls, awnings, parking space and history.

The street itself was named after the prominent Seah family. Eu Chin Seah an immigrant from South China was a wealthy merchant ( he made a fortune in gambier and pepper plantations and was called the ‘King of Gambier’) and a leader of the Chinese community in 19th century Singapore. So were his sons Seah Liang Seah and Seah Peck Seah, who also have streets named after them. What’s interesting further is that the three parallel streets in the Bras Basah area : Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street used to be the original settlement site for the Hainanese immigrants (The ‘Singapore Hainan Society’ sign board that’s to the left bottom of my sketch on Seah St hints at this) and were known as Hainan First Street, Hainan Second Street and Hainan Third Street.

Considering that the Hainanese were mainly employed in the service industry (in local hotels, restaurants, bars and bakeries as cooks and domestic servants) it isn’t surprising that the famous ‘Singapore Sling’ birthed at the hands of Ngian Tong Boon, a Hainanese bartender working at Raffles Hotel in 1915. See the blatant red awnings of Sin Swee Kee Chicken Rice stall in my sketch? Well, they house the famous chicken rice, that was first adapted to its current form by Wong Yi Yuan a Hainanese immigrant and later popularised by his apprentice Mok Fu Swee, through these restaurants.

Besides witnessing layers of history, what drives me to capture such streets in my sketchbook is their dynamism, their ever changing, continuously morphing nature. If you’ve lived in Singapore you’d know what’s here on this street today won’t necessarily be there tomorrow. One of the most common sights on the road I believe is the large moving truck! At least, when this scenery changes and it will I’m positive, my Moleskine will bear testimony to a time gone by.

For now, it justifies my skipping an yearly ritual. My husband understands.

 

 

 

 

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Out and about

I am enamoured with Singapore’s shop houses.  It’s official. These picturesque palimpsests of the past have been recorded in my sketchbook so many times that I can draw them to a tee even if someone blindfolded me and trussed me up in a cupboard.

Club Street

The shophouses have remained but clearly the businesses have changed. Sketched at Club Street

To the untrained eye, most shophouses may look alike, but if you’re the curious and observant kind, you’d know that’s hardly the case. Their purpose as residential and commercial establishments may have remained unaltered, but the architecture of these two, sometimes three storied narrow facade terrace houses continuously evolved from the 1840s to 1960s, when they monopolised the cityscape of Singapore.

Pre 20th century shophouses were functional and austere – low two storey buildings with one or two louvered windows with hardly any embellishment on the facade. Chinese-Baroque style from 1900 to 1940s, saw extensive use of decorative mouldings, pilasters, carved wood-work and imported glazed tiles on the facade, representing the fusion of Eastern and Western architectural styles and giving great aesthetic pleasure even today when you look at their refurbished selves. Moving forward, heavily ornamental gave way to simplified and streamlined.

Boat Quay

Such an amazing potpourri of architectural styles seen at Boat Quay

Designers and builders began combining ornately carved transoms and colourful tiles with Art Deco elements such as cross-braced glass window panels and geometric balustrade designs, finally joining the Art Decco bandwagon in 1930s and continuing till the 60s. Stepped pediment with a flag post is a typical giveaway of this stye. Modern shophouses of 1950 – 60s, were plain and unadorned except for a concrete fin air vent perhaps, thus coming full circle in terms of design simplicity.

All this may seem very textual, but what thrills me is to be able to catch these nuances of evolution when I am out and about in the city, running errands, going to the library, working at a cafe or sketching. Especially, sketching. Tracing this potpourri of personal taste, temperament and lifestyle of the residents of yesteryears, sometimes on a single street feels like time travel. Every single time.

 

 

 

 

 

He came, He sat, He left

Purvis Street

This row of colonial shophouses on Purvis Street was sketched from the Killiney Kopitiam

Everytime I visit the Central Library in Bugis, I drop by Killiney Kopitiam on Purvis Street for a cup of coffee or lime juice. Mostly lime juice, and sometimes french toast with butter and kaya. Parked on Killiney’s functional chairs and tables set on the five-foot way, for less than 2 dollars, I get to brush up on my dolce far niente while enjoying an unobstructed view of a narrow street hosting rows of colonial shophouses on either side. If you discount the fact that these conserved historical relics work as hotels, swanky restaurants, bars, and boutiques in the current scenario (instead of being obliterated, I’d say that’s a good compromise), and just focus on their restored exteriors displaying Chinese Corinthian style* – the facade bejewelled with Chinese symbolic features such as vases of peonies, fire breathing dragons, bat-headed keystones;  colourful louvred windows with fanlight and the wide arched entrances  – you’d know that they’re still a great sight to rest your eyes on in this uniform black and white concrete and steel jungle.

So I come here often. Mostly during late afternoons when we  – the retirees and I – can have the kopitiam to ourselves. From time to time, cheerful flocks of students and suave, important looking  people in dark suits and starched dresses that don’t seem to wrinkle, swing by like migratory birds – always in limbo, sitting alone in a corner, minding their business and never staying too long. Untill the other day, the very subset of this group, approached me from behind in a deep baritone voice – Is somebody sitting there? ‘There’ meant the empty chair opposite me. I was knee deep into this sketch and just waved my hand saying no, without even looking.

‘Well, can I sit there?”. An early 40-ish man of athletic build, with a tapered face sporting long sideburns, slick hair combed back and set in place with hair gel, dressed in a dapper grey pinstriped suit and thick framed glasses was standing in front of me, holding a can of chilled Tiger beer and a pack of cigarettes. I may have mumbled an indecisive ‘sure, go ahead’ out of politeness, because the next moment he was shuffling himself opposite me and putting his knick-knacks on my table. Had he approached few minutes early, this guy – probably on a gluten-free, carb-less, high-protein diet that requires him to eat exactly five and a half times a day in precariously measured quantities – would’ve witnessed me hogging my greasy french toast with a cube of butter in quick mouthfuls. Glad I saved him that image. I moved the empty plate and cutlery by an inch to make room for him, or may have just nudged the plate to give an illusion of my intent as well as re-iterate who’s the first occupant and who’s the ‘tag along’.

He lit his cigarette and was quiet. He may have been staring at my sketch but I didn’t look. I kept drawing thin lines, thick lines, curvy lines, wavy lines, squiggly lines but I didn’t look. I kept looking at the shophouses right past him, across the street for reference but not at him. He cleared his throat and took a long swig of the beer. My peripheral vision figured him shifting in his chair, feeding spiral cigarette smoke to the small potted plants on the steps. I casually swept my eyes across the kopitiam’s corridor to check if the other chairs were taken. None was. Well, what do you want? I screamed. In my mind.

More wavy lines, curvy lines, squiggly lines, this time with greater diligence and feigned honesty. I was like a mean drawing machine working towards an irresistible piece-de-resistance that would somewhow prevent apocalypse.  The weight of the world was on my shoulders. How could I deflect? I dug deeper into my sketchbook and didn’t look up.

He said, ‘Hello’. So I looked up. He was turned away from me, and was balancing his phone between his ear and the shoulder, while his hands caressed the cigarette and thecan of beer. What followed was not one but several calls, one after the other- advising, pleading, negotiating, sweet-talking existing and potential clients on investment opportunities with the bank that employed him and probably helped finance the Armani frames balanced on the bridge of his nose. Talks of floating and fixed interest rates, and millions of dollars escaped his lips in casual banter.  ‘Have a great weekend’. I looked up again. He was still on the phone.

Then just as discreetly as he’d come, he left. I’ve never witnessed anyone leave like that. Effortlessly. Without the sound of footsteps. Like a frightened gazelle. If vanishing into thin air seems hyperbolic, I’d say he glided into thin air – the posture of getting up, adjusting the body and taking the first step to walk off merged into one single mellifluous move, almost like a nubile dancer.

He even took away the acerbic smell of his perfume mingled with the cigarette smoke that I loathed in the beginning but was beginning to disregard.

 

* I gathered more information about this particular architectural style ( commonly mistaken for Straits Baroque architecture) seen on Purvis street, from an exhaustive exhibition on Shophouses at the URA centre : “Interestingly the working drawings for these twin arcades of two storey shophouses which were designed by Almeida & Kassim for local worthy Seah Peck Seah in 1902, gives no indication as to how the facade was to be ornamented. The elevations simply defined the principle dimensions of the building, but the detailing was left completely blank – no cornice, no architrave (the moulding round the windows), no secondary pilasters, no fluting, not even a keystone, let alone one with a bat’s head on it! Evidently, the style and choice of imagery was left completely to the artisans who carried out the work, who, in this instance, have opted for a remarkable synthesis of Chinese and Baroque aesthetic sensibilities to arrive at a very singular Chinese ‘Corinthian’ style of ornamentation. “