Tag Archives: urban sketching

Coffee drinkers of Seoul

This is the latest bunch of observational drawings from the sketchbook I just finished.

If you have been following this blog, you know that I like to visit cafes often, which Seoul had no shortage of (every other building has one), to observe and sketch people drinking their coffee and doing whatever they do while they are at it which is a great variety of things.

There’s light reading for pleasure, there’s heavy-duty studying for entrance exams, then there’s intermittent reading and checking online stores on the phone by the side; there’s celebrating life’s important milestones, there’s debating with colleagues, arguing with family, catching up with friends, there’s watching a soap opera with a loved one and there’s working alone knee-deep in reports and presentations, there’s lunching while on a break from work, catching a break in between shopping and once in a while there’s staring vacantly into space.

My sketchbook bears testimony to all that happens over a cup of coffee.

This particular set was drawn during the winter months, which is why you see warm clothing on people’s backs or piled on chairs and tables next to them depending on the heating inside the cafe.

Hope you enjoy seeing the drawings as much as I enjoyed drawing them!

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This guy was having an animated conversation with his friend (not imaginary) and was thrusting a lot of thumbs-up in front of his face

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(L) Studying but also checking the phone for updates (R) Looked like their’s was a long-standing friendship

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(L) Someone other than me who owns a lurid pink jacket in Seoul (R) Someone who likes to fold their scarf neatly even when no one’s looking. 

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This couple was so captivated by whatever they were watching that they remained still like statues glued to their iPad for the longest time. 

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(L) Two Zara employees on their lunch break (R) Someone straight from Bruno Magli, consuming a $6 salad and tapping her feet to cafe music. 

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(L) She’s no Jack and she’s not dull (R) Somebody kept this guy on hold for a very long time and never for once did he lose his temper. 

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(L) Thick glasses and a big fat SAT study guide (R) She ate the cake and saved the cherry until the very end. 

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One sassy lady in green pants and round glasses catching up with her friend. 

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(L) Nose in the cup, finger on the screen (R) Ruminating in a power suit. 

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(L) Edgy hairstyle on someone who looked rather mild-mannered and affable 

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Girl at the next table turned 15 and I got to sketch her! That delicious cake with strawberry topping was from Tous Les Jours.

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When I sketched an argument in progress. “Explain yourself, Bob. Linda, calm down”

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I could never pull off a pixie hat with a straight face but she did it so well

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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.

Ewha Womans University

was the location of my first sketchwalk with the Seoul Urban Sketchers. I had been waiting for this day ever since we moved here and the countdown ended last Saturday when I hopped on a train from Gangnam and travelled all the way to one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, to meet a group of 20 sketchers who gave me the warmest welcome I’d ever received.

EWHA b&wThe thing about urban sketching, especially in a group like this is that it is one of the most enjoyable and unique ways to see a city and learn about it too at your own pace. It is also a great way to make the acquaintance of locals, hear their stories and view the place through their eyes.

If not for Dominick, a fellow sketcher who I met at the sketchwalk, I wouldn’t have known that the tree whose massive trunk I was gawking at was a ginkgo tree. We found it while scouting for suitable locations to sketch from, inside the arboretum-like university campus.

They turn yellow in fall, don’t they?” I asked Dominick, pointing to the fan shaped leaves. I had seen pictures of golden ginkgo-tree lined streets on the Internet and couldn’t believe I standing before something that was capable of turning into such surreal beauty later in the year.

Yes, but did you know that the female tree produces a nut that is extremely smelly? It’s a nuisance!” he said.

I did not know that! A little research back home revealed that there are 114,000 ginkgo trees in Seoul and one in 10 are female and the nuts they produce are nutritious and tasty when cooked, but the butyric acid in their husk produces an offensive smell. Some say it stinks of vomit, others say it smells like rotten cheese! I read that the city employs over 400 people to wipe the streets and the sidewalks clean off the pungent ginkgo nuts.

So is this tree a male or a female?”, I asked Dominick but he didn’t know.

EWHA finalA short walk from the ginkgo tree brought us to this charming stone Gothic structure nestled in greenery . The sky was a cool blue and except the sound of breeze rustling through the leaves and chirping of birds, it was really quiet. It took me about 40 mins to finish the line work using a dip pen and ink.

I coloured the sketch later as I had to rush off to a book club but not without the burning desire to revisit the campus again in autumn if not before to determine the gender of the first ginkgo tree I met.

 

 

 

Tras Street

 

is where I went last weekend to join the Urban Sketchers gang which meets on the last Saturday every month at a specific location. The reason why many of us look forward to this once a month rendezvous is that not only do we get to draw as a group feeding off each other’s passion and enthusiasm for art, we also meet the wonderful artists whose works we passively admire on social media and get to peek into their sketchbooks, watch them in action, sift through their tools and at times pick their brains and receive invaluable advice and feedback.

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Shophouses on Tras Street in Tanjong Pagar drawn using dip pen and ink

Having said that, one massive downside to this otherwise uplifting event- affecting only your wallet- is that you are unfailingly smitten with a certain fountain pen, brush, crayon, pigment, sketchbook or camping chair that you find one of these artists using to get those ‘impossibly good results’ in their art, or so you think. The more you watch them using it the more needy you become so much so that you cannot imagine your life without it. You find out where it is retailed and then vamoose!

I had every plan to sketch more on Tras Street, instead I have a new water brush.

 

In pursuit of the perfect location

Couple of days back, on a late afternoon I was in Kampong Glam scanning streets, alleys, sidewalks, cul de sacs in search of a proper place to sit and sketch from.

And as I was squirming in the intense heat, politely turning down offers to peruse Persian carpets on sale or to sit down for a Turkish dinner that could be had as the busboys promised with a view of the radiant Sultan mosque overlooking the entire Arab quarter, I realised that the ‘perfect location’ can be as elusive as anything good we pursue in life.

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Sketched from the lovely Working Title cafe on Arab Street

Like the perfect job, perfect partner, perfect wine or the perfect vacation, if finding the perfect location needed to be worked for and sweated over, I was doing just the same but without any success in sight. Kampong Glam cafe that normally offers an unobstructed view of the palm fringed Bussorah Street had two black vans parked right under its nose and Haji Lane packed with tourists and Friday night revellers had zero real estate to spare. My patience was fraying.

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Row of shophouses on Arab Street

Just as I was harrumphing about the lack of a single spot of shade on Baghdad Street for me to crouch under and sketch, I wondered if ‘perfection’ is subjective and therefore if it is possible to calibrate our sense of perfection and still feel accomplished? I wanted to try.

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And by that I mean, despite being occasionally interrupted and accidentally elbowed by passersby crossing the narrow ‘five foot way’ right behind me did I consider the Working Title cafe on Arab Street the perfect location? Heck, yeah! I sat by a big wooden table on the foyer all by myself for the next hour sipping coffee, looking across the road and sketching this row of beautiful shophouses.

 

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).

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“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