Xin Li, Lee: Graphic Designer of Sayang Singapura

Local designer, artist and blogger Xin Li just released his latest masterpiece. Titled Sayang Singapura, the book features some of his best works on local scenes and places that will surely bring Singaporeans down some memory lanes. We think there is no better way to commemorate Singapore’s 50th birthday, and were more than happy to have had the time to sit and have a chat with the man behind the nostalgic works of art.

What inspired you to be a graphic designer? When did it all begin?

Drawing and doodling has always been a hobby of mine and I took art as a subject in my Junior College education. It stopped after National Service when I entered university. It wasn’t until I picked up a book Jerusalem by Guy Delisle that got me drawing again. I was inspired by the Canadian animator and illustrator’s personal take of the places he travelled to. It motivated me to start drawing again and it was pretty cool that I got to rediscover Singapore this time through my love for illustration.

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What’s the story behind your poster of kuehs? We love it!

Funnily enough, the Kueh poster started as an unsuccessful commission work with a Peranakan restaurant. In the process, I realized that it is hard to distinguish what is truly a Nonya, Chinese or Malay kueh. As a result I discovered that there is this rich mix of cultures that gave us the kueh we take for granted today.

Through the project I discovered many kinds of kueh that I didn’t know about. I was intrigued by the shapes, colours or the subtle differences in this common snack that’s been around all the time. It is a creation unique to Southeast Asia that has been moulded by the multi-cultural environment in this region. What the poster means for Singapore is its discovery of the shared culinary roots we have within the region as well as a documentation of the kueh (and its many names) found in the region. Sadly, some of these cakes are disappearing from our country such as the Kueh Koya and Bee Koh.

Another contentious issue I faced when listing the kuehs was linguistic in nature. The debate to use Baba Malay, Malay, English or Indonesian terms was often a neverending one. For example, the Kueh Lapis is known by its more popular nickname Rainbow Kueh here, but is also known traditionally as Kueh Genggang. I guess it’s a sort of consolation that it shows that people still care. I think it’s very important because food is such a huge part of our culture and would be such a pity if these traditional snacks cease to exist one day.

That’s definitely some food for thought. Where can we buy your poster?

The posters can be purchased through Naiise and Zazzle, with international shipping options available. Alternatively, drop me an email to purchase and collect them from me personally!

We’re curious – is illustrating your full-time job?

I’m currently a student at the National University of Singapore doing my masters in Architecture. Illustrating is my passion and what I enjoy doing during my free time.

What do you remember most about growing up in Singapore? Tell us more about your favourite childhood memories.

Growing up in Singapore, I’m most aware of the ever-changing landscape, which can be disorientating at times. My favourite memory as a kid was of the now-abandoned Neo Tiew estate. My mum used to sell food like horfun at the coffeeshop there. The coffeeshop used to be frequented by soldiers and I remember the huge 5-tonners driving past the brick-laden square in front of the coffeeshop. My siblings and I would also play at the playground in Neo Tiew, running around what we nicknamed the “pigeon nest”, a circular sandpit with lots of pigeons – hence the nickname.

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I revisited Neo Tiew again when I was 21 and serving my National Service, but the Neo Tiew I knew had by then turned into an abandoned estate and converted into an urban ops training ground that was shrouded with ludicrous ghost stories. It was a striking transformation but the place remained familiar.

Neo Tiew is just one of the instances of such drastic transformation. Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, Seletar, Pulau Tekong, the former National Library and even Queenstown Cinema which I recall passing by almost daily when I was in primary school. These landscapes that are no longer were the ones that left the deepest impressions on me.

Thanks for sharing about your childhood. Where do you currently live? And where are your places to be in your current neighbourhood?

We have moved a number of times and I currently live at Lornie Road, just next to the famed Bukit Brown Cemetery which has now been partially fenced up. The Brownies are doing an amazing work documenting and fighting to preserve this piece of heritage that could very well match the historical Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. It will be a real pity to see it go. We have already lost Bidadari Cemetery in 2004. There are a number of changes that have been going on in my neighbourhood recently. Besides Bukit Brown Cemetery, I have also witnessed the shutting down of Longhouse eating house along Thomson Road.

I seldom hang out around the area as it is a quiet neighbourhood but when I was in secondary school or in Junior College, Novena, Toa Payoh and Bishan are the places you’ll find me at. It was the time in life when Swensens was the place to go for celebrations (the Firehouse Birthday Sundae was a must!)

Today, anywhere that offers some peace or quiet with local coffee and toast makes me happy. Due to work, I am often around the Prinsep Street area. I enjoy visiting this cosy, little café the Sneakery Café. They’ve pretty good and affordable Smoked Duck Noodles and Vietnamese Coffee.

If I have the luxury of time to explore further, Changi Village area is my next favourite place to hang out. There’s plenty of decent food there, it’s serene and if there is a special occasion, I will drop by Bistro@Changi for its view of the planes descending upon Changi Airport. It’s therapeutic.

What is one thing that you wish that is no longer or hard to find in Singapore?

I miss the Mamak Shops, the old school bakeries like Red House Bakery, and the old merry-go-rounds in the playgrounds. I remember during my primary school days, there used to be uncles riding around on their bicycles selling ice cream or satay. I don’t see them nowadays except for the stationery ones around Orchard Road or near the Asian Civilisations Museum. The excitement when hearing the bell of the satay man’s arrival and getting out paying for satay prepared on the spot is a fond memory that’s second to none.

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Thanks Xin Li for your time and sharing your favourite memories of your time growing up Singapore!

Since we love the book Sayang Singapura illustrated by Xin Li, Shiok! is giving away two copies of it to our followers on our Facebook page. Just comment on your favourite memory of Singapore and we will be picking 2 lucky winners to walk away with the book – a timely way to welcome Singapore’s birthday month!

Sayang Singapura is available at major bookstores including Kinokuniya, Select Books, Books Actually, Times Bookstores and Popular. For more information on Xin Li’s works, visit https://www.facebook.com/PokPokAway and http://the4moose.blogspot.sg/.

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