The Greats 2020

Every year, T Singapore deliberates on the most impactful individuals for The Greats, our annual list of cover subjects who have left their indelible footprint in their respective fields. This year, we looked both at home and abroad for inspiration. Two of our covers feature Singaporean talents. Kumar is a comedian, drag queen and performer extraordinaire who has been entertaining and exciting audiences for nearly 30 years with his uniquely Singaporean brand of humour; while Taiwan-based, Singapore-born Tanya Chua is one of the country’s most well-loved and talented musicians whose career has finally come full circle. 

Elsewhere on our list, we look to neighbouring Malaysia to learn about entrepreneur and style icon Neelofa. Read about how she balances the demands of social media and an ever-watchful society with her own ambition and values. 

Finally, we look at two Japanese icons who have had a deep and profound impact on our collective aesthetic, whether we realise it or not. The avant-garde designer and master tailor Yohji Yamamoto, is celebrating his 50th year in the fashion business, but his cultural legacy and enduring influence on design has undeniably had an impact on other fields. Architect Tadao Ando is a towering figure whose buildings and awe-inspiring structures inspire pilgrimages from thousands of visitors. In our cover story, he challenges the observer to re-examine the use of space, light and even elements like the wind in his architecture, and remains deeply committed to his artistic vision, even at the age of 79.

 

Kumar

Photograph by Nicholas Ong
 

Kumar has been a household name in Singapore from the 1990s. The fact that he is known by just the shortened version of his birth name, Kumarason Chinnadurai, is an indication of how far he has come to be the definitive Kumar in this country. Unlike performers whose fame has waxed and waned over the years, Kumar has been consistently famous for nearly three decades — although the medium of his comedy has changed from clubs to television and now the Internet.

In the ’90s he was known from his performances in the Boom Boom Room, a comedy club cum cabaret show in Bugis Street. He literally burst onto our television screens in pre-Netflix 1993, as one of the hosts on the comedy sketch show “The Ra Ra Show”. But although the show looms large in the collective memory of the generation that grew up watching it on Singapore TV, it aired on free-to-air television for just 10 months. Conservative society didn’t approve of its sexual innuendo and the liberal use of Singlish and it was eventually taken off the air. Kumar’s reaction is that of a realist. “They were not ready. I mean, in Singapore, there are some people who will never be ready.” Censorship, both by himself and by outside forces, is, after all, a recurring theme in Kumar’s public life.

Despite being short-lived, The Ra Ra Show had a huge and almost immediate impact on Kumar’s public visibility. It made him so famous that he once had to be physically lifted out of Takashimaya by a bodyguard, because of fans who mobbed him at a magazine’s live show. The incident left a deep impression on Kumar, who decided that it was all too much for him. When the show ended he was “very glad”, and ready to move on and continue working. “I couldn’t handle the fame, so I had to stop TV,” he says.

The Kumar today has crafted two very different personas. In person, he is quietly self-possessed and not particularly chatty, although he opens up more as our phone conversation goes on. When in full drag for our photoshoot, dripping in Bulgari diamonds and donning avant-garde pieces, he hams it up theatrically for the camera, brandishing his long pointed faux nails almost like a weapon.

But the line between performer and person is quite clear, through an almost casual and unconscious decision made earlier on in his career. “The one thing I did was I left the drag on stage. I didn’t go out in a dress, because I thought that once you finish work, you finish. I think that also helped pave the way for people to accept me because they knew that the fantasy was over and the real person was coming out now. It works because I can also just switch on and switch off.”

Continue to read the full story here. Watch the video interview here.

 

Yohji Yamamoto

Photograph by Takay
 

Yohji Yamamoto has devoted his fashion career of over 40 years to perfecting an anti-establishment stance. Ideas such as “anti-trend” and “anti-fashion” are common themes in the Japanese designer’s shows. His defiance can be traced back to his debut presentation in Paris in 1981: At a time when European womenswear designers prescribed cuts creating slim illusions or accentuating bodily curves, Yamamoto obscured the woman’s body with dark fabric draped and shaped in a manner that defied the prevailing visual norms in fashion. And everything he has since created has continued in this vein — to stay separate from fashion’s ideals.

He became known as a member of a select group of Japanese designers who made a splash in the West during a Eurocentric time in fashion, such as the late Kenzo Takada, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo. And yet his work was vastly different in its tangible manifestations.

Yamamoto was born in 1943 in Tokyo, Japan. His earliest exposure to fashion was through his mother, who was a dressmaker in the city. He went to Keio University and graduated with a law degree in 1966, but decided he wanted to pursue fashion. This was met with resistance from his mother, who eventually allowed him to help out at her store, where he learnt how to sew from his mother’s assistants. Later, he graduated from Bunka Fashion College (which also counts Kenzo Takada and Junya Watanabe as alumni) and won a scholarship to go on a year-long exchange in Paris. This culminated in Yamamoto presenting his first collection in Tokyo in 1977.

Despite having grown up with a parent who opposed his decision to work in fashion, Yamamoto encouraged his daughter, Limi, to become a fashion designer. “But I still wonder if that was the right choice for her as her parent,” he says. “The moment you decide to become something, to make a living at any job or with any form of expression, it’s like you’ve got one foot in hell.” He concedes that he had not known, even for himself, that fashion was the right path toward success. In 2000, Limi started Limi Feu, a sub label of the Yohji Yamamoto brand. Her designs echo Yamamoto’s dark symbolism, using draping and asymmetry that go against womenswear conventions. “I said to my daughter when she made her debut, ‘Welcome to hell,’” Yamamoto says.

Continue to read the full story here

 

Neelofa

Photograph by Chee Wei
 

A mononym has always been reserved for a certain type of personality: Prince, Beyoncé, Iman. The kind of personality that renders a surname irrelevant. The kind of personality that forges a household name familiar to millions. These kinds of names withstood and will continue to stand the test of time, representing certain ideals many identify with.

And perhaps the same could be said of Neelofa. The three melodious syllables roll off the tongue. String them together and a particular face would spring to mind: One that’s both soft and sharp in its geometry; its cheekbones framing a set of feline eyes, eyelashes curled and full, lush lips. On the set of the cover shoot with T Singapore in Kuala Lumpur, this particular face was crowned with the glorious swath of a black leather hijab. Her petite figure — covered in an ankle-length Alexander McQueen coat, its shoulders exaggeratedly raised as if an armour — telegraphed an innate grandeur.

At 31, Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor, often shortened to Lofa by her legions of fans, is a burgeoning cultural force in her home country Malaysia as well as its neighbouring countries. She wears multiple hats, juggling roles as an actress, television host, business owner, fashion icon, and even, for a brief stint at AirAsia Group that recently ended in August, as a director of an airline. In Malaysia, her name is stamped on anything you can possibly think of. Onscreen, it’s displayed on local telemovies and popular talk shows like Next to Neelofa. Off the screen, it’s printed across the plastic lids of bubble tea, the latest collaboration between her banana milk brand, Nilofa and the giant Taiwanese teahouse chain Chatime. Or more prominently on the clothing labels of Neelofa’s rapidly growing modest wear empire, Naelofar.

Her polymathic entrepreneurial interests translate to a ubiquitous presence that comes with a magnetic reach. The numbers speak for themselves: At the time of writing, she’s easily the most followed figure in Malaysia, racking up a staggering 12.4 million followers on her social media platforms. In an interview in 2019, she claimed that her label Naelofar managed to get “50 million ringgit sales [S$16.3 million] within one year from Instagram itself.”

Continue to read the full story here. Watch the video interview here.

 

Tanya Chua

Photograph by Zhong Lin
 

“Morning comes around and I can’t wait to see my sunny island,” Singaporean musician Tanya Chua sings at the beginning of “Where I Belong” a sprightly lilt that easily evokes a nostalgic sense of pride and belonging in most Singaporeans. It was at the 2001 Singapore National Day Parade when Chua, together with a red-and-white-clad audience, belted out the words, “where I belong / where I keep my heart and soul / where dreams come true for us.” Written and composed by Chua almost two decades ago, the song was a rousing tribute to the modern state of Singapore, which despite being in its infancy, had become one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

In the official music video, the camera follows a pensive young Chua as she rides in a taxi out of the Singapore Changi airport, before scenes of the metropolis start to unfold. The images translated are not the typical glossy skyline but intimate glimpses into humble everyday life on the island — the school bus, neighbourhood strays, colourful high-rise buildings and provision shops. Without the need for swelling orchestral undertones, the song manages to exact an emotional response, and channelled a sense of unity among Singaporeans. Not surprisingly, it became a de facto anthem shortly after its release and still stands as one of the most iconic national theme songs today.

“I must have still felt like a rookie,” Chua tells me over the phone, not with the magnanimity of someone who has played such a huge part in something so attached to both our national identities, but as a perpetual student who commands great humility.

Continue to read the full story here. Watch the video interview here.

 

Tadao Ando

Photograph by Takay
 

The Church of the Light in Osaka is a small building consisting of three concrete cubes. As you enter the main chapel, you immediately notice a cross, illuminated through the sunlight that pierces through slits in the concrete. But its spartan interior also causes a sense of disquiet for many who step inside — a point deliberately made by its architect Tadao Ando, who wanted worshippers to fill the blankness of the space with their own spiritual thoughts. It is this philosophy that has influenced a lot of Ando’s works, many of which function almost as a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which to project one’s own thoughts and emotions.

As a child, Ando, who grew up in downtown Osaka, was strong-willed and energetic. “I could keep myself awake for three days straight,” he recalls. “I wasn’t good at studying, but I was serious about playing. After school, I was always uninhibited and free. I would run around the riverside and play by the river. Whether it was fishing or catching dragonflies, I learned how to live while being in nature and playing around nature. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I learned everything important about life from playing.” 

The young Ando started life as a boxer. While he admits the two don’t have direct connections, looking back he has found some parallels. “Architecture and boxing have two points in common; one is that the serious tension will always be present and two, you need physical and mental fitness for that. I think the experience from boxing, which pushes both the mental and physical limits, has been helpful in the world of architecture,” he says.

He first developed an interest in architecture aged 14, when he met a math teacher and a young carpenter who were remodelling his home. “Knowing these two people with different professions, I became interested in the world of architecture. When you consider the thinking behind mathematics and building a building, you can do both of that in architecture, and that’s when I started having a vague attraction to architecture,” he says.

Continue to read the full story here