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A walk through Singapore’s history with Yip Yew Chong
It took a stranger, local street artist Yip Yew Chong, to finally make me feel at home in Singapore. During Covid, I found myself stuck on the tiny island-state I had called home for almost eight years – and yet had not really explored. Working in travel, I was used to doing my sightseeing overseas. Feeling pent-up and locked-in, I started taking early walks, exploring the island while it was just waking from slumber.
In Chinatown, I stumbled across Yip’s My Chinatown Home mural and found myself crying at its nostalgic domesticity that made me suddenly miss my family back in Sydney even more. It was a moment that sparked a love affair with Yip’s paintings that has since seen me criss-cross Singapore to stand in awe at each of his beautifully detailed murals.
Here, I will introduce you to some of my favourites. Start at 83 Pagoda St near the Chinatown MRT, where in a back alley you will find Mid-Autumn Festival, a colourful mural of bright lanterns, where a local couple sit before a table laden with mooncakes, fruit and tea, while children play around the corner. It is said the playful superman flying above the children is the artist himself.
Take the alleyway that leads to Smith St, where you will find the Letter Writer, which harks back to the days when calligraphers played an important role in helping migrants correspond with their loved ones back home. The artist grew up in Chinatown and you can feel his deep affection for the neighbourhood in every painting.
Head next to the mural that started my love affair with all things Yip, located at 30 Smith Street. My Chinatown Home depicts the artist’s former dwelling in Sago Lane and is bursting with nostalgia, from mum cooking at the stove to the kids playing board games and granny sewing a beautiful patchwork blanket. The detail in this artwork and the obvious care taken to recreate his childhood memories are perhaps what make this mural so evocative and why many feel so emotional when seeing it. Two things that feature in many of his artworks – cats and calendars – can be seen here. In days past, cats were used to chase the rats away and calendars are symbolic of special celebrations to be shared. Thankfully sanitary conditions are vastly improved in Singapore today. There are often chairs close by to many of his murals so that you can pull up a seat and be part of the artwork, making it interactive for young and old.
Around the corner from this is Detective Conan in Chinatown, a playful mural that shows the famous Manga character trying some stinky durian – and apparently approving.
Next is the spectacular Cantonese Opera, at 252 South Bridge Road. This vibrant mural is dedicated to the extravagant costumes and elaborate backdrops used in Cantonese opera – and to the vendors and audiences who frequented them. On the left, children stand on tippy toe for an ice cream and a turbanned Indian passes a tiffin to an artiste, while in the middle, the dazzling performers take centre stage and on the right, the ubiquitous cat. Once again, the detail and colours that Yip brings to life are astounding – just make sure you watch out for cars coming up Temple St as you stand in admiration!
Now it’s time to head to 40 Everton Road, where Yip’s first public mural, Amah, features a grandma crouched over a basin, handwashing some intricately detailed kebaya and sarongs. Around the corner is the Barber, reminiscent of the days when people would have their hair cut on the side of the road. I love the quirkiness of the Milkmaid tin hanging from a tap and the artist’s signature addressed on an envelope. You will see the signature envelope in another work just up the road from here, Provision Shop at 8 Spottiswoode Park Road, which harks back to a tiny shopfront, where locals could buy dried foodstuffs, homewares and shaved ice in the days before homes had refrigeration. A grey cat poses for photos beneath the red post box and to the left a Vespa is parked, waiting for its rider to come out laden with goods.
Continue down Blair Road to see some of Singapore’s most beautiful shop-houses and a striking mural by Thai artist Alex Face of giant bunny-like creatures in traditional costume.
Now head back past the Pinnacle at Duxton, the high-rise HDB flats which feature a rooftop garden usually open to the public (outside of Covid restrictions).
Next stop is the 44 metre long Thian Hock Keng Temple mural, located along Amoy St. This is Yip’s tour de force and celebration of Hokkien culture, taking you through a visual history tour of Singapore’s past, from the bustling kampong days to the modern skyscrapers that tower over the city today. Just like a Chinese scroll, read this story from right to left, and starting in black and white with more colour as the years progress. Every time I stop in front of it, I find spot something new.
Wave your phone over the QR code on the end to bring it to life, although one day I had the honour of a local uncle who came upon me staring at it, and proceeded to talk me through it panel by panel, embellishing with his own stories of growing up in the exact neighbourhood, which used to front the harbour and is now fully developed on reclaimed land.
The final stop for this tour is nearby Mohamed Ali Way, which Yip has dedicated to three vanishing trades. On the left is Lion Dance Head Maker and The Window. Based on an actual shop at 3 Ann Siang Hill in the 1980s, the painting depicts one of the last full-time lion dance costume-makers, a keeper of Chinese tradition. Above him, an Indian and Chinese woman lean out a window from which hang colourful blankets, while another cat paces the awning. In the next panel is the Mamak Shop, where an Indian immigrant relaxes while waiting for customers. I love the old fashioned phone saying ‘I just called to say I love you’, a cute moment of humour which can be found in many of his works. The detail in the items for sale – lollypops, newspapers, boiled sweets – makes you almost feel like you have stepped into history.
And in the last panel is Paper Mask and Puppet Seller, apparently based on a beloved hawker who used to sell colourful masks from his cart in the neighbourhood.
From here you have a myriad restaurants, cafes and stalls to explore around Chinatown so it’s the perfect place to stop. If you are interested in discovering more of Yip’s beautifully evocative artworks, go to yipyc.com to explore his more than 50 artworks scattered across Singapore and many others around the world.
Yip’s skills with a paintbrush and vivid imagination have helped to make Singapore more familiar and I hope they bring you the same sense of comfort and joy.
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