Tag Archives: Straits Chinese

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. “


Row of Shophouses on Lebuh Katz

Impression 1 : Lebuh Katz looked sleepy and quiet even at 9 in the morning. Ocassionally a moped or a trishaw would linger past leaving some trail of life. This row of shophouses seemed like the only ornate fixture in this working class neighbourhood with worn down houses that look utilitarian and lived in. Interesting trivia : As I suspected, the street has a German connection. It was named after the German born Katz brothers who established an import business in George Town in 1864.

When I learnt this word in my German class, I remember being instantly enamoured, repeating it several times in class, on the tram, in shower, enunciating it, rolling it around in my mouth to acquaint myself with its nuances, volleying it with my tongue, exploring its soft corners and rough edges and then carefully putting it back in my vocab chest, like a vintage fountain pen with gold nib and sterling silver filigree overlay, something valuable that you take out only on special occasions.

And when you do, you put on a show. You bask in the smug glory of the wonder ricocheted off others’ faces. Then you put it back in your armour again. Such is the word ‘zufrieden‘, which may mean satisfaction in English, but doesn’t feel or sound as hackneyed.


The owner of the shop whose corridor I had blocked came out to survey soon after I had set up. Instead of shooing me away, he moved his bike aside so I could have more elbow room and then he showed me the tap from which I could draw water for painting. A lot gesturing happenned as he didn't speak English and I don't speak Hokkien.

Impression 2 :The owner of the shop whose corridor I had blocked came out to survey soon after I had set up. Instead of shooing me away, he moved his bike aside so I could have more elbow room and then he showed me the tap from which I could draw water for painting. This was accomplished with a lot of gesturing as he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Hokkien.


Row of Shophouses on Jalan Penang

Impression 3 :Row of Shophouses on Lorong Stewart. Everyday after workshop ended at 6, I would rush back on the road to utilize the 1.5 hours of leftover sunlight in sketching whatever caught my eye. This time, I was plonked on the floor of another 5-foot way, lined with several fancy restaurants. People sauntered past me, wearing shiny clothes and expensive perfumes. I remember making the ushers really uncomfortable.

Sometimes a foreign tongue can elevate the meaning of a word you’ve heard all your life and transform its ethos into something grand just because it sounds luxurious in your mouth and tantalizing to your ears and also because you didn’t have enough time and occasion to wear it out. What I mean is, I may use ‘satisfied’ to indicate my experience in using the newly opened restroom at the airport, but use ‘zufrieden‘ while reminiscing about a sketching trip to George Town in Penang, that I returned from. To explain why, I have to reiterate that it was my first overseas trip where sketching was the actor in leading role and travelling was the supporting sidekick, not the other way round, like always. The priorities were flipped and the result was glorious.

This epiphany doesn’t mean travelling takes a backseat. I am the parent that’s trying to advocate equal love for each child.

A Red Trishaw parked on Armenian Street

Impression 4 : When I saw this Red Trishaw parked on Armenian Street, I was compelled to sketch it, simply because of this  composition. I found a shady spot beside an Ice Kachang lady who initially tried to sell me her ware but later took the responsibility of shooing people away from my line of vision, including tourists. Halfway through the sketch, the red trishaw left, only to be replaced by another in few minutes but this was parked the opposite way. In an attempt to get it done, I was trying to laterally invert the vehicle in my mind and then draw it. When the trishaw driver, quietly lunching beside me got a whiff of my frustration, (I may have been muttering to myself), he got up and to my utter disbelief turned the heavy vehicle around just so I could finish my doodle and declined to take tourists for rides till I finished. When I thanked him, he just nodded. And the Ice Kachang lady dragged her son out of the house to show him my sketch. She seemed proud.

This partially dilapidated shophouse caught my eye on Love Lane.

Impression 5 : I was sketching this aged beauty from a ruined torn down shophouse, right opposite when my husband said, there’s nothing indicative of ‘Love’ on Love Lane. Well, 19th century sailers and soldiers who made a beeline for the brothels lined up here would’ve differed. The amorous frolics of yesteryears have been replaced. Love Lane looked quiet, desolate and monochromatic that evening, except for a gaggle of tourists gathering around cafes chit-chatting about guesthouses, wi-fi, backpacking and travel. Perhaps somebody will talk about Love.


For me, travelling isn’t just fun, it is also an yearning. The fact that I feel more happy, and alive on the move is established and I don’t second guess it.

What is travel’s worth in one’s life can be gauged from the motivation to travel.  Is it to break away from the mundane seeking ‘change of scenery’, or to relax and recoup before you go back on the hamster wheel, is it to check off places from Lonely Planet’s 1000 places to visit before you die , is it to reclaim your twenties because you’re about to step into your 30s? Or is it that unsettling lifelong ‘need’, not a want but a need, right out of Maslow’s heirarchy, that thrusts you into the unknown from time to time?


Dinner at China House

Impression 6: China House, a beautiful shop house turned cafe has tables that are covered in white paper. A small bucket of crayons is set on the table for you to scribble while you wait for your meal. This sketch is colored using the same crayons. For dinner, I had spaghetti with grilled chicken and sadly, it was a let down. The pasta was overcooked and flavours were all over place. The lime soda with mint and mango slices was a disaster – I have never tasted anything so incongruous. But DO NOT leave this place without trying the ginormous slice of out-of-this-world Tiramisu. I have a feeling desserts are their strong suit.

My motivation to travel, my ‘need’ to travel, comes from my insatiable inquisitiveness to see, explore, thus discover and know. I believe, we are all inquisitive, differing in the intensity, perhaps. I mean, don’t we all like to take a peek, a swift glance into other’s living rooms through their open windows at night or others’ plates in a restaurant or try to read the label on a bag hanging from a stranger’s shoulder, try to peel off the discounted price sticker on a garment to reveal the actual price or take a peek at the answers behind the Math book?

The apogee of my German learning classes in Munich, was the day I could understand overheard conversations on the tram. It was as if a stubborn blocked nose had cleared and I could smell the roses again. Untill then it was unfathomable background noise instead of funny jokes, twee endearments, silly fights or crass comments. If you are inquisitive to such a degree, then travelling is one pursuit that requires each of your five senses to be in a constant state of high-alert. You are a walking sponge, absorbing an overwhelming amount of information sent by your five, foot soldiers who are working in a frenzy.

Row of Shophouses on Jalan Penang

Impression 7 : I sketched this row of Shophouses on Jalan Penang – an important thoroughfare during the colonial era –  from the Komtar pedestrian bridge. Shophouses in different stages of restoration like in this sketch is such a common sight in Penang. One crumbling and abandoned shophouse shares a wall with its fully restored neighbour, housing a bustling guesthouse or a cafe or a bistro in full regalia, which in turn shares its wall with another that is being mended and prettied up for better prospects. The famous Teochew Chendol sold at the junction of Keng Kwee Street is only a few minutes away. The Assam Laksa sold there is fresh and flavourful.


Now let me add another dimention to this self-absorbing pursuit called travel. Suppose you’ve been quietly nurturing the habit of documenting your life, the sights and sounds around you on a regular basis in a sketchbook and have been taking immense pleasure out of it. Yes, it’s been two years. Darn, you’ve even gotten good at it. It has brought you joy, won you friends across the world and admirers who say how much they love your ‘style’ (to which, you have chuckled more than once muttering smugly and questioning at the same time – “I have a style? I have a style!”).

Shop house on Lebuh MacNair

Impression 8 : Any visitor to Penang will be awed by the potpourri of architectural styles – Early Penang Style (1790s – 1850s), Southern Chinese Eclectic Style(1840s – 1900s), Art Decco style (1920s), Anglo Indian Style (3rd quarter of 19th century) to name a few – representing various periods of the city’s history. It’s like a rainbow cake, each layer unique and different. It’s interesting to view two buildings standing side by side that may have been built in different centuries! I sketched this house on Lebuh MacNair because its architectural style seemed different from the two storied pre world war shop houses peppered across the city. It is probably an Indo-Malay bungalow but I can’t be sure.

You’ve showed your work at exhibitions, and sold. Yes, somebody actually paid money to hang your creation on their living room wall. You’ve counted the money gleefully, but you’ve also felt the pang of loss. It’s complicated.

The Conundrum

Nevertheless the burning question is what do you do with this situation of yours, when you travel? Do you accomodate it because it’s becoming second nature or do you abandon it lest it comes in the way?

Stall on Lebuh Chulia

Impression 9:  In the darkness of the night, this Wan Tan Mee pushcart twinkled like a firefly on Lebuh Chulia. In the pale bulb light I could make out a stooped figure handing out steaming bowls of springy noodles with soft wantans floating in an irriesistible dark sauce. The whole shebang was in the open, with pots and pans, buckets, gas cylinders strewn all around. Business was hot. From the enormous queue snaking around the stall, anybody could gauge its popularity.

Shophouse on Armenian Street

Impression 10 : Shophouses make such great subjects for sketching. Even across similar architectural style, each house seemed unique and full of character. Swatow Lodging house at no. 16, had all its windows closed. The worn out facade had pockmarks of mildew, faded and peeled paint. The ground was covered in weed. A whole lot of trash – dust covered broken and discarded furniture, toys, cardboard boxes was strewn right across its doorstep. But nobody seemed to care. It was even atmospheric, perhaps exhibited as such deliberately to recall vestiges of the past. After all ‘heritage’ is a fast seller among tourists. For a shophouse sketch fanatic, which I am, Armenian Street has plenty to offer. I picked this one to spend my time on because it stood like a little punctuation mark after a long sentence of shophouses.

If you are inquisitive, you probably have been badgered by the ‘let’s see what happens’ shtick. That’s what I caved in to. I carried my sketchbook everywhere I travelled to see how it felt. And surprise surprise! Sketching did come in the way I travelled, the way we – I and my husband were used to traveling all this time. Aching shoulders from lugging around A4 size sketchbooks and watercolours, making more and longer stops at sights than usual, leaving my partner to fend for himself while I doodled, battling the desire to sketch but moving on instead because, well..tick tock..tick tock, fighting the guilt of cutting on the ‘us’ time – looking into each others eyes, holding hands et al and feeding the ‘me’ time was what happened.

Sketching on the grounds of the colonian Eastern and Oriental Hotel

Impression 11 : Spending even one night at the 1885 built colonial style Eastern and Oriental Hotel( called E&O) could be the highlight of Penang trip, especially if you find out that your favourite authors Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Herman Hesse were fellow boarders. Every room faces the sea and the black and white floor of the opulent bathrooms will steal your heart. Do request for a heritage tour at the concierge – this will be your chance to view some of the original fixtures and furishings in the Heritage Wing rooms.

The Decision Making

But if something feels remotely right you hang in there, right? You see it through. Let the unsure wobbly wheels roll, in the hope of finding balance.  Truth be told, I haven’t found balance yet, I still falter and fumble trying this third wheel to roll with us in tandem, on our travels, in our lives but guess what, it is getting easier by the day, week, month and year. And what more! I am reaping the benefits. Already.

Cafe 55 housed in a shophouse on Lorong

Impression 12 : While sketching Cafe 55 housed in a shophouse on Lebuh Pantai, we realized how narrow the roads in the historic district of George Town were. Soon we were betting if the next car could turn without grazing the parked car. There were few hits, but mostly misses. Too bad the rickshaws have been replaced.

The Consequence

If you are a mercenary, do not read further. Disenchantment follows. Because the benefits which I am reaping, which many others before me have reaped and those who are yet to follow this path will reap in future is hopelessly Zen. When I am sketching, specially on my travels, I connect with my subject and my environment much more deeply than I would have if I was merely visiting or passing by, because sketching involves intense observation.

Shophouses along Jalang Penang

Impression 13 : If you’re sketching on the road, keep your privacy tucked away in the backpocket because you’ll attract people like flies to a candy. And your work of course is open to unsolicited criticism. On this single occasion of sketching   shophouses along Jalan Penang, I had an Indian migrant worker at my elbow the entire time, three families and a group of girls lingered and quietly took overhead shots. An elderly gentleman stopped by and said, ‘If this was up for judging , I would give you first prize”. I took off my oversized sunglasses and gave him a genuine smile. The smile was wiped off by the Korean tourist who requested for a photo of me with my sketch and kept me hanging while she fixed her lens and cleaned it before the shot.

It invokes mindfulness, devoid of distraction, to such a degree that you participate in the scenery you are capturing on paper. Your fingers trace the eaves of the ancient temple roof, you knock on the louvered windows, ride the creaking bicycle, you flutter the laundry, skip the puddle on the fractured road and is caught up hopelessly in the nasty bunch of gnarly wires crisscrossing the facade of a shophouse. You become the pigeon sitting on the pole.

Eastern and Oriental Hotel

Impression 14 :The Plantation Lounge at E&O has these luxurious chairs that will engulf you when you sit on them. In combination with retro reading lamps, a small library, choice of board games, free flowing coffee and tea, this place is a perfect hideout any time of the day. The constant sound of waves washing up the shore takes the experience up a notch.  If you are staying here, don’t miss the elaborate breakfast options at Sarkies. For the first time in my life, I ditched toast and omelette for lamb curry and coconut rice for breakfast. Try a spoonful of roasted peanuts and fried anchiovies with it.

Dinner at Muntri Mews

Impression 15 : Dinner at Muntri Cafe, on Muntri Street was rewarding after a day of sketching in Penang’s heat and humidity. We ditched the relaxing alfresco seating outlined by exhuberant green boughs for air-conditioning. Wiser choice perhaps, till it became dark, temperature dropped and those tiny tea candles on the tables outside were lit up. It was romantic, but we weren’t there. Then came the food. It wasn’t just warm and comforting but also delivered on taste and presentation. We snapped right back into the zone.

“The courage- to-be, right here and now and nowhere else, is precisicely what Zen, at least, demands : Eat when you eat, sleep when you sleep!'” says Peter Mattheissen, in his book ‘Snow Leopard. Sketching lets you practice exactly that without even making an effort.

When you travel through a destination, sketching slows you down, so you don’t just eat, but taste, not just look but see, not just hear but listen. And do you know what comes out of this beautiful partnership ? You are zufrieden, truly.


Impression 16 : The owner of this coffee mill on sleepy Lebuh Katz hadn't opened shop yet. But that didn't stop him from keeping us company and conjure a 'thumps up' from time to time as the sketch progressed and muttering in Hokkien - 'beautiful, beautiful'.

Impression 16 : The owner of this coffee mill on sleepy Lebuh Katz hadn’t opened shop yet. But that didn’t stop him from keeping us company and conjure a ‘thumps up’ from time to time as the sketch progressed and muttering in Hokkien – ‘beautiful, beautiful’.

Bye Bye Penang!

Impression 17: Right before our flight, we had dinner at Kaffa, which is at Penang Airport. The nifty decor and the ambience does not match food quality (we had Salmon and pasta) or the portion size. The drinks were pale and watered down with plenty of ice. The trip advisor sticker on the door has to really work its charm!

This sketch of my face on the identity card, was the first one on this event

Impression 18 : I am terrible at drawing myself! Anyway, this was the first sketch done at the event.

The Happily Ever After

I have come back with 20 sketches from a 3 day trip to the UNESCO world heritage site of George Town in Penang, Malaysia. And since I slowed down on these 20 ocassions ( and almost all of these were off the tourist map) , I have 20 deep and distinct impressions of the city (see below each sketch) relating to it’s architecture, history, food, people, culture, ambience, temperament that someway or the other has characterized and demystified the place for me. I had first hand experiences which are real and personal.

And I am sure, the 170 odd skechers from the entire South East Asia plus UK and New Zealend, who assembled here to participate in the USk SGT II (Urban Sketchers Sketching Georgetown II) event, experienced the same.