T's Best Stories on Singapore in 2020

  • By T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore

  • T's Best of 2020 /31 December 2020

  • By T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore

Edward HendricksLeft: The facade of Canvas House, of which signage bears the golden strokes of Low’s family name. Right: Inside, an all-white co-living space.
Left: The facade of Canvas House, of which signage bears the golden strokes of Low’s family name. Right: Inside, an all-white co-living space.

It is true to a certain degree that the history of a city is recorded in its buildings.

To many Singaporeans, conserved shophouses are architectural canvases for nostalgic charm. Built between the early 1800s to mid-1900s, their terraced structures used to house storefronts at street level and cramped dwellings above. It was after Singapore’s independence that many shophouses, along with other colonial and pre-colonial buildings, were torn down in favour of a build-from-scratch, tabula rasa approach that the Singapore government adopted in order to provide space for new modern developments. 

Today, some 6,500 of the shophouses that remained are now clustered around dedicated conservation areas of the old city centre as well as several other parts of Singapore. And amid the First-World skyscrapers, these old-world tableaus are one of the obvious but diminishing links to Singapore’s national narrative.

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A Day Inside a Handmade Mooncake Factory in Singapore

Bianca HusodoInside Tai Chong Kok’s factory located in an industrial complex in Admiralty, up to 8,000 pieces of mooncakes are made daily — mostly by hand.
Inside Tai Chong Kok’s factory located in an industrial complex in Admiralty, up to 8,000 pieces of mooncakes are made daily — mostly by hand.

It’s early September and we find ourselves at Food Xchange, a seven-storey food manufacturing and production complex in the northern industrial tip of Singapore, where factories are aplenty. We make our way to the sixth storey, traipsing through sweltering rows of nondescript food suppliers and manufacturers, where we finally meet Ham Weng Seng, the third-generation owner of Tai Chong Kok, a bakery synonymous to its mooncakes and Cantonese pastries.

Even to Chinese Singaporean millennials, the name Tai Chong Kok, which translates to “Big China”, would ring a bell. The 85-year-old bakery, which was established by Ham’s late-grandfather in 1935, has withstood the test of time. Its well-known confectioneries includes the likes of traditional walnut cookies known as beh the soh (a flaky, hoove-shaped pastry with malt candy fillings). Although more prominently, Tai Chong Kok is best known for its traditional mooncakes — especially during the seasons leading up to Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

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Three Singapore Start-Ups Tackling the Ugly Side of Food Waste

Courtesy of UglyFoodUglyFood's popsicles.
UglyFood's popsicles.

When I first heard talks about climate change, in the early 2000s, media outlets at the time spoke of the topic as a distant threat that was likely to warm the planet, kill wildlife and affect our lives if we didn’t scale back on consumption. To combat this threat, we were gently advised to develop good habits, like turning off electrical appliances not in use, recycling soda cans and reducing the use of plastic bags.

In just about a decade, the situation has escalated into an alarming global crisis. Current issues that plague the environment are far too numerous to list.

In Singapore, the National Environment Agency spotlights food wastage as one of the five largest sources of waste. This sparked a year-long battle against food waste in 2019, as part of the Year Towards Zero Waste campaign initiated by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, to encourage Singaporeans to adopt habits that reduce immediate food wastage. These included ordering only what can be finished, asking for less rice or noodles if you know the amount is too much and refusing side dishes that won’t be consumed.

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In Singapore, a Dystopia of Empty Places

Hosanna SweeA lonesome Merlion, perhaps for the first time in a long time.
A lonesome Merlion, perhaps for the first time in a long time.

In the past few months, the world has screeched to a standstill. Panic looms large, and the word “virus” rolls off our tongue like rushing water. As the contagion continues to rifle through the globe, major sporting and cultural events have been cancelled or postponed, religious gatherings have ceased and a whole slew of establishments have shuttered, from bars and cinemas to gyms and tourist attractions. 

Singapore is no different. With the government’s imposition of stricter measures, in which only essential businesses and services remain open, the third densest country in the world has been emptied out. Typically known for human congestion and citizens’ difficulty in unearthing quiet oases in the city, traditional hotspots are now expansive and desolate terrains. 

While stately skyscrapers smoulder in the lambent morning light, a peculiar languor prevails in the Central Business District. A sense of calm percolates through the roads during rush hour, as traffic lights maintain their unchanging rigour. Something feels eerily amiss — not only because this isn’t the Singapore I remember, but the haunting panorama seems to foreshadow an economic recession.

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The 80-Year-Old Singaporean Potter Who Sculpts Imperfect Vessels

Rosalynn TayMaster potter Iskandar Jalil, photographed at home on July 6, 2020.
Master potter Iskandar Jalil, photographed at home on July 6, 2020.

Every morning without fail, Iskandar Jalil puts his helmet on, pushes his motorcycle out the gate of his house and rides it to his workshop. Secluded in a verdant corner of Temasek Polytechnic, Iskandar’s workshop was once the centralised bin centre of the school before the artist and some of his students transformed it into Temasek Potters Studio seven years ago. Since then, Iskandar has been mostly stationed at one end of the workshop, sitting and working at his potter’s wheel, humming to the old-time tunes he plays on his radio.

At 80, Iskandar remains physically sturdy: He is petite but nimble, and his once boyish visage has weathered into a craggy atlas. When I visited his studio, he was in the middle of sculpting what he calls a “small-mouthed” vessel. “I let the clay tell me what to do,” says Iskandar, his gaze still trained on his mound of clay. “I never have in mind what it is going to be.”

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The Architect Who Designs Some of Singapore’s Most Intriguing Homes

Courtesy of Aamer Architects Another one of Taher’s completed projects in Singapore is a residential house that occupies a tight bungalow plot in the east of Singapore, where the areas are more prone to floods. Its first storey has been raised a full floor above the ground entrance.
Another one of Taher’s completed projects in Singapore is a residential house that occupies a tight bungalow plot in the east of Singapore, where the areas are more prone to floods. Its first storey has been raised a full floor above the ground entrance.

For Aamer Taher, the founder of the boutique architectural firm Aamer Architects, deciding to enter the field of architecture was not necessarily a childhood dream. Up until in the point that he was doing his national service (military conscription in Singapore), he was unsure of the career that he wanted to pursue. It was his platoon mates who suggested that Taher apply for the School of Architecture in the National University of Singapore because of his drawing skills. Still, he tells T Singapore that due to his grades he almost did not make it there. “I ended up in an interview — for [what was called] ‘on the fence’ cases. The interviewers, who were senior tutors of the school, were willing to give me a try, probably due to my lively personality and nice drawings,” says Taher.

It didn’t take long for Taher to fall completely in love with designing and he fondly remembers his time in university as among his happiest. When he struck out on his own, one of the first projects he did was a group of three houses — two semi-detached houses and a bungalow — for a family friend located in the eastern part of Singapore. “I went totally bonkers on the design. The bungalow house has a water slide that curved around the exterior of the house and landed in the pool at the rear garden, while the semi-detached houses had inverted curved roofs for collecting rainwater. That was in the early ’90s. It received so much attention from the media that jobs started pouring in,” says Taher.

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Secretly Filmed, a Forgotten Movie That Portrays Singapore as It Was

Courtesy of New Horizons Picture Corp. A scene at Empress Place Seafood restaurant, which was located at what is now known as Boat Quay. Left to right: the director Peter Bogdanovich, actress Monika Subramaniam, cinematographer Robby Müller and the actor Ben Gazzara, who played the film’s protagonist.
A scene at Empress Place Seafood restaurant, which was located at what is now known as Boat Quay. Left to right: the director Peter Bogdanovich, actress Monika Subramaniam, cinematographer Robby Müller and the actor Ben Gazzara, who played the film’s protagonist.

The film “Saint Jack” opens with a languorous pan along the Singapore harbour at dawn. The camera’s gaze glides from archaic bumboats to the speeding traffic on the streets beside the monolithic General Post Office Building. There’s no music; its absence filled with the early rumble and exclamations of a stirring city — patiently waiting for the story to unfold.

It’s obvious that this is not the modern, gum-free, skyscraper-crowded Singapore.

Filmed in 1978, “Saint Jack” was the first Hollywood movie shot entirely on location in Singapore. The film is the American director Peter Bogdanovich’s cinematic adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1973 novel of the same name. Auteurs the likes of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino had cited the movie as a notable inspiration to their work.

The central subject of the film is Jack Flowers, a middle-aged American pimp — played by Ben Gazzara, clad in a brash range of batik shirts for the most part — who has dreams of starting a brothel. But he also happens to be a saint, as the storyline would like to suggest. Navigating through the slippery, changing landscape of Singapore in the ’70s, Flowers encounters a confection of characters. He’s on a genial first-name basis with the transgenders and sex workers at Bugis Street. He’s the middleman between the latter and American G.I.s who are in town for R&R. He eventually gets into trouble with a group of triad mafioso in Chinatown for building his own bordello.

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