Tag Archives: urban sketcher

Happy Birthday Singapore

On the occasion of Singapore’s 55th birthday, which is today, I am fondly remembering the trip I took early this year to the tropical city-state and the sketches I made in the few days I was there.

To give you a bit of background, before moving to Korea in 2017, I and my husband spent seven years in Singapore and have some lasting memories of that place. Needless to stay I still have a hankering for my old home once in a while. So when the opportunity arrived for a short visit, I couldn’t refuse. I called all my friends to check their availability, applied for visa and dug out my old city transit card that I had kept as a souvenir.

This was one trip that wasn’t going to need any planning!

Starbucks at Raffles City Mall

One of the best places to meet someone in the city is at the Starbucks inside Raffles City Mall. It’s the first thing you see as you climb up the escalator from City Hall subway station. The mall air-conditioning shields you from the heat and humidity and the constant stream of people makes it an unparalleled people-watching spot.

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While waiting for a dear friend,  I made a quick sketch of some coffee drinkers, including this woman with a beige scarf draped around her body with pictures of bugs on it!

Singapore National Library

After lunch at Sin Swee Kee chicken rice restaurant on Seah Street opposite Raffles Hotel, we popped into Straits Commercial, like old times to peruse art supplies. Not only does the place have a superb collection of art materials, it is also the most likely place to bump into local artist friends, which I did! After swapped stories and checking out each others’ sketchbooks we crossed the street and walked over to the Singapore National Library.

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The library’s handsome collection of books on literary and creative arts had drawn me to its shelves more times than I can remember. Getting myself a library card was the first thing I did after settling in Singapore. While sketching this scene of people reading and snoozing on the library sofa, a little schoolgirl came over to watch me draw. Soon her friends joined me on the sofa. They seemed amused at the sight of an adult playing with colour pencils and crayons!

Tiong Bahru Bakery

For tea and cakes, I hopped into a cab with my husband and headed to our favourite cafe in Singapore- Tiong Bahru Bakery. I have sketched here so many times over the years that the bakery’s manager, Christine knows me well and was over the moon to see me walk through the doors once again with a sketchbook in hand! She got us a seat with good light, just like before. We ordered tea, coffee and a Kouign-Amann, just like before. I started sketching. There were moments when it felt like we hadn’t left Singapore at all.

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Before leaving Christine brought us a complimentary pineapple tart that had been newly introduced to the menu. I drew it for her as a way to say thank you and the sketch went up on the community board.

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TBB community board

After leaving the cafe we walked around the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood, past our favourite Art Deco buildings. Some new cafes and boutiques had sprouted while some old ones had bitten the dust. Tiong Bahru Market was still there, abuzz with activity.

Newton Hawker Center

I wanted to spend the evening at Newton which used to be our old neighbourhood and later have dinner at Newton Hawker Center. It is a food haven for Southeast Asian cuisines. Seated on these very wooden benches surrounded by food stalls, we had gorged on Bak Chor Mee, Thai pepper chicken, Aloo parathas, Curry laksa, and Nasi Goreng on countless occasions.

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Upon returning, my first impulse was to get a taste of everything! But I didn’t act on that. Perhaps the heat was taking a toll on my good senses. I let a glass of sweet refreshing lime juice help me settle down. The evening crowd was arriving and the tables around us were getting snapped up.

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The heat was also melting my crayons and they became soft and mushy, really pliable which helped me work faster than usual. By the time I finished sketching, I had worked up an appetite. I got myself a steaming bowl of handmade meatball noodles, rejoiced every bite of it and left the place completely satiated.

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Throughout this trip I realized how much I wanted to remember everything I was doing before I left Singapore again for good. So I did them well, however small or insignificant, something was, I paid attention. I really engaged. There was this excitement of revisiting the familiar – friends, food, sights, sounds and smells – but then there was also this new, unfamiliar urge of holding on to them as long as I could.

Before going back to the hotel, we walked past our old apartment building. It looked exactly the same. Apartment 03-02 was brightly lit and someone was watching TV in the living room. The building caretaker recognized us and said that incidentally, a Korean family had moved in right after we move out and left for Korea!

Back alleys of Gangnam

In my neighborhood in Gangnam, the back alleys are lined with outdoor BBQ joints, izakayas, cafes, small bakeries, basement game parlors, nail salons, copy and print stores, night clubs, food trucks, and convenience stores. As evening approaches the neon lights come alive. People pour in from all directions and the smell of food and the sound of thumping music and clinking beer bottles spill out from shops and pavements and fill the air.

During the day it’s much quieter though. With most people in offices, the alleys are empty save for the continuous flow of delivery trucks unloading beer kegs and cartons of food and supplies for cafes and restaurants. This is also the time when minor repair works and maintenance happen, so you hear hammers banging or drill machines making holes into walls or watch a crane hoist a window-cleaner up an office building.

In the sketches below I have captured the minutiae of everyday life over several months on random walks around my neighbourhood. The viral K-pop song ‘Gangnam style” that catapulted Seoul’s Gangnam district into international recognition synonymized this area with wealth, affluence, and a certain trendy lifestyle. True, the gleaming high rises, luxury cars gliding along Gangnam-daero and the swanky Gangnam cafes all attest to that image but as a 3-year-old resident of this district, I have loved exploring a different side of it – a slightly scruffy, often grungy and pedestrian side with loud wet markets, ugly utility poles, and dusty construction sites that live in the back alleys, away from the main thoroughfares.

Afternoon Tea with a view

Chloris Tea room

One summer afternoon I parked myself in the balcony of Chloris Tea Room facing a narrow back alley, ordered myself a cup of Rooibos tea, and looked out into this jumble of brick houses, utility poles, potted plants, hurried passersby, and a bunch of pigeons hopping about.

Back street architecture

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As I turned this street corner a visual explosion of incongruous colours, shapes, and sizes of random urban objects compelled me to stop and make sense of my surroundings. The brick building seemed to be heavily ‘ornamented’ with all kinds of shop signages, AC condenser units, and pipes. There were trash cans leaning against it and a utility pole with car parking instructions stood guard. So much was going on in such a small space!

End of a workday

view from Paul Basset

I sketched this scene from a tiny Paul Bassett cafe inside an office building overlooking a busy alley. It was the end of a workday and out of the cafe’s large glass windows, I saw people spilling out of nearby offices and rushing towards bus stops and subway stations. If you’re curious about the ‘No Brand’ sign on that building like I was, well, it’s a brand by Emart (one of South Korea’s biggest supermarket chains) that sells products at super affordable prices. Their purple sweet potato chips and cheddar cheese balls are very popular!

Queen of hearts

Gangnam backst

There’s a small Korean dumplings shop around the corner from this Copy and Printshop where I often go to buy a prepacked set of 10 delicious steamed Kimchi dumplings for $4. One day on my way there, I saw this tourist in a baggy red sweater full of hearts leaving the shop with a bag of dumplings and her heavy suitcase, perhaps heading to a nearby hotel. She was looking at a map on her phone to find the way.

The Window Shopper

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Gangnam back alleys are rife with independent boutiques selling fashionable clothes and accessories. One day while I was out with my sketchbook looking for subjects, I saw this woman eyeing a red coat at the shop window of this boutique on her way to Gangnam Station. She seemed very interested and paused for few minutes in front of the store but eventually walked away. She probably wanted to give it some more thought.

Fall chores

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A common sight towards the end of fall is dead leaves getting swept off the roads and sidewalks.

Scary Hoodie

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Since I can’t read Korean, when I am out on the road my eyes naturally wander towards anything written in English. One day while waiting to cross the road, I happened to stand behind a person wearing this very amusing hoodie which was totally worth documenting!

Sighting of the Pig Head

Nonhyeon Market

I love visiting traditional markets in Seoul but didn’t know there was one, south of Han River, close to where I live! There’s so much to explore at Yeong-dong Market and as I walked slowly past shops selling beans, rice, tea, kimchi, bean paste, meat, condiments, sauces and a variety of fried snacks, I came upon this scene – a dog owner and his dog in matching outfits. The dog was clearly excited by a severed pig head displayed at one of the stalls and was pulling at its leash really hard and barking while the embarrassed owner did everything to calm his pet.

Boiled pig heads are used at a Korean ceremony called Gosa intended to bring good luck to someone starting a new business or buying a new car or moving into a new home. The head is placed on a table along with different kinds of foods. Those who visit the ceremony stuff cash into its mouth and ears. When the ceremony is over, everybody eats and drinks together. These days, however, people have even started replacing the real thing with a sugar-coated cake resembling a pig head.

The Sign Walker

EDM signage

The guy with the ed:m sign (an education consulting firm) is a permanent fixture on the busy stretch between Sinnonhyeon Station and Gangnam Station. Come rain or shine, he’s always there. What I find unique and also heartening about this guy is how intensely absorbed he always is in his books and therefore oblivious of his surroundings and the passage of time. For me, this sign-walker stands out more than the sign.

Follow the leaves

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Only a few meters up this alley lies the famous Kukkiwon, also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters. On weekends, I often see parents heading there with their kids dressed in white Taekwondo uniforms. My interest, however, lies in visiting a small park on the side of this alley which I accidentally discovered one fall afternoon by following this line of Gingko trees and their fallen leaves. When I crave nature, this is where I go for a quick fix.

Slice of Gangnam

Gangnam scene

This sketch isn’t of a back alley but of a view from the back alley of Teheran-ro – one of the busiest roads in Seoul, choc-a-bloc with cars and lined with tall gleaming skyscrapers and lampposts that have the Korean flag fluttering from them. Sometime last year for a certain period of time, all the Korean flags were replaced with flags from different countries of the world. Everytime I walked along Teheran-ro with my husband, we had a ‘guess the flag’ contest.

Tulip Lady 

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One of our favourite things to do in spring is to walk around the neighbourhood in search of cherry blossom trees. Since they are around only for a week or two, we try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. On one such excursion, I saw this woman walk past a hardware store under a row of cherry blossom trees with a tulip plant in hand that had a single blooming red tulip. Everybody else had sandwiches or coffee in their hands. It was lunch hour. I wondered if the plant was for her own work desk or bought as a gift for a friend she was going to meet later in the day.

The Bargain-hunter

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Right before the onset of winter, I found this guy perusing winter coats at Vin Prime, a thrift shop in one of the back alleys of Gangnam. He didn’t buy anything but he browsed for a long time and let me finish my sketch from across the road. My hands were freezing.

 

 

 

 

My Neighbour’s trash

I have never seen my next door neighbour.

But interestingly, almost on a daily basis we see stacks of delivery cartons and trash left outside their apartment door. This is true for other apartments in the building as well.

The trash, however doesn’t contain kitchen wastes! There are separate waste disposal units for that in the basement. Most of the time what one comes across lying haphazardly on the floor outside apartment doors are these empty cardboard boxes that their deliveries came in.

Ever since we moved here, I have been curious about the constant ebb and flow of delivery guys in our building at all times of the day, everyday, pushing hand trolleys stacked with cardboard boxes that they keep unloading at every floor. So what are people buying all the time? And why?

neighbour's trash

Turns out, South Korea is home to the fastest internet on the planet. Nearly 100% of households here have internet connection. Combine that with excellent service from Korea Post and you will see why this country has such rapidly growing e-commerce market, which is currently 7th largest in the world and 3rd largest in the Asia-Pacific region.

From golfball to a toilet seat cover, you can buy almost anything on the internet (Gmarket and Coupang are two very popular online shopping websites in Korea) and have it delivered to your doorstep inside those ubiquitous brown cardboard boxes I always see outside our neighbour’s door.

Once in a while discarded household items like a TV, a hoover, giant ceramic vases – things too big for a trash can but small enough to not block the hallway make an appearance. They are of course disposed off by the cleaning staff in a day or two.

Of all the trash I have seen outside apartment B1302’s door, this lot has got to be the most intriguing, hence the drawing! That tall structure I recently learnt from a pet owner is a ‘cat tree’ for a pet cat to play, exercise, relax and sleep on.

I may not know my neighbour from Adam but at least now I know he/she has a cat.

When it snowed

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Our apartment in Seoul is on a high floor and has floor to ceiling glass widows that face the road. When it snows, and it doesn’t snow much here, the world outside feels like a giant snow globe.

Couple of weeks back when it did snow, I grabbed a few crayons and a kraft paper, jumped on the bed and drew the view outside my window as snow flakes floated from above and settled on the roofs of buildings, sidewalks and on top of cars, blanketing everything, blurring edges and corners until what was left was an unidentifiable white blob under a leaden sky with splashes of bright colour peering out from places.

This sketch is a depiction of what I saw that day and an expression of how I felt in that moment!

Same same but different

While working on this particular set of drawings sitting at cafes, eateries and subways around Seoul, it dawned on me, especially after having moved countries recently, how different we are as humans irrespective of our similarities and how similar we are irrespective of our differences!

When we first moved to Seoul (and in the subsequent months) I was fascinated by the large groups of elderly people kitted out with serious hiking gear riding the subways on weekends, by the fearless ‘Ajummas‘ (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) in identical solid perms, sun-visors and windbreakers, by the mini portable fans everybody carried in their hands all summer and the copious amounts of Bingsu (a lip-smacking Korean dessert) they consumed; or how most women would pull out a mirror from their bags and freshen up their make up every once in a while, by the raging red lipsticks and round framed Harry Potter glasses worn en masse and how clothing and preferences changed with season.

On the other hand these days there’s hardly anything novel about a couple sitting together, in silence, glued to their phones; or someone taking a picture of their food first before starting to eat! Don’t we all have that one friend who can’t stop talking, so much so that we mentally check out after a while, maybe doze off in the chair even? Look out for that person in this collection.

And a lady with a fetish for polka dots.

And two ‘rubik’s cube’ lovers.

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Guy with trekking poles and hiking boots, seen on the subway

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My husband on a late night conference call becomes an easy target.

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Ajumma on the left in sun visors and lurid pink jacket, drinking coffee

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(L) Sketched this lady on a hot summer day. She was wearing white, and carrying a matching white purse (R) Two ladies eating mango Bingsu. This was common sight all summer

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(R)From her polka dotted top, hand fan, umbrella and backpack, it was safe to assume that she really liked ……

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(R) This guy in green GAP t-shirt was a one man show. He seized every conversation and talked so much that one of his mates dozed off!

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(R) A lot of thought and effort goes into appearance and I see most Seoulites dressed really nicely when out which means I feel underdressed half the time.

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(L) From my table, it looked like a “It’s not you, it’s me” kind of conversation. Don’t miss the bright red lipstick on this woman, rather on every woman in these drawings.

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(R) Mini portable fan= most seen summer accessory in Seoul. (164,000 of these were sold in South Korea this year!)

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(R) Couple that plays rubik’s cube together stays together! These two were relentless in a ‘coffee be damned, let’s solve this thing’ kind of way.

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(L) Make-upping should be a word here.

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I often see business meetings being conducted in cafes. Here’s one in session. Attendees – 3 feisty women and one man who squirmed in his chair every time the discussion heated up.