Human Touch

An artist gets her kicks in Singapore

Visiting Singapore after two years in Vietnam is such a treat for an artist like me. It was the annual Affordable Art Fair in the exhibition halls near the Singapore wheel. I was dazzled by the array of contemporary art on offer from galleries who had travelled to be there from all over Asia, the US and the UK.

I was inspired by the beautiful brush work of contemporary Chinese ink creations. There is something alluring about the proportions and compositions of these works. I am always left wonderstruck by the poise it takes to load the brush with ink, put that brush to paper and make one single flowing mark to create an image that touches something deep within us. We talk about pictures speaking a thousand words but Chinese calligraphy can speak a thousand prayers and poems when the artist is as one with his materials.

My next treat was to spend 45 minutes amid the beautiful art supplies at The Straits Art Company. The smell of turpentine, mahogany and graphite is intoxicating to an artist. There are stacks of cotton paper, and a shelf filled with every watercolor pad and block made by the lovely French paper maker, Arches.

I buy three tubes of frighteningly expensive acrylic paints in the colors I saw in Chinatown the day before. Like a child, I can hardly wait to get them back to Saigon and smear them across a virgin canvas using the huge new brush I bought as well.

As I leave the art store, a rain shower brings out the hues of the colorful shophouses and I wish I had more time
to simply sit and stare. Next I jump in a taxi to the Ritz Carlton to admire their art collection. They have two installations of Chihuly glass, a massive suspended sculpture by Frank Stella, commissioned artworks by David Hockney, Rainer Gross and even pieces by Andy Warhol and Henry Moore. It is a hidden diamond in Southeast Asia.

My favorite things in Singapore are the old-style covered pavements hung with glass lamps, fans and bird cages. I seemed to have been walking for ages when I was brought to a halt by the perfume of frangipani. And there it was; a perfect potted specimen of fresh green with white blooms beside a wall of deep Chinese lacquer red – too beautiful to describe – its shadow casting a hard outline on the baking sidewalk.

I love the old pagoda of Pagoda Street. It has all the opulence, exuberance and unabashed confidence of its Indian homeland and I enjoy the peace of the mosque on Temple Street with its quiet cloisters, subdued colors and spotless floors. Both cultures have contributed to the style and color of the melting pot that defines the old Singapore we see preserved today. It is eclectic, it is full of life and personality and it is so, so welcoming.

By contrast, the concrete and glass of the new, high rise hotel district with its wall-to-wall air conditioning, indoor streets and empty pavements is so inhuman – so self-conscious. Where is the human touch, the individual style, the clutter and laughter? It’s a cold contrast to the old houses.

My thoughts go to Saigon and the huge changes taking place in the heart of that beautiful old city. But the charm of the old shophouses could so easily disappear and the city will lose its character entirely if the developers have their way. The city planners could learn a lot from the way Singapore has conserved the old while morphing into a 21st century city. It would not be considered one of the best cities in the world if it had trashed its heritage. Let’s hope Saigon can follow in its footsteps.

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