We recently stumbled upon 27-year-old NUS architecture student and illustrator Lee Xin Li’s drawings accidentally and were immediately fascinated. Drinking in his imaginative layers of Singapore, blending the real and the dream-like, we can’t help but feel slightly nostalgic and suddenly a bit prouder about our homeland.
Self-taught, Xin Li only started producing illustrations two years ago. Yet he is already attracting fans and doing some serious work like a Bukit Brown exhibition and the Singapore Tourism Board’s Tourism50 campaign. He has drawn iconic buildings from the former Kallang Airport, the National Theatre, to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Perhaps his most poignant recent work was of a jubilant Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the Commonwealth Close Estate, based on a photograph taken by photographer Larry Burrows from the LIFE Magazine.
We recently caught up with Xin Li, who graciously answered five questions about his work.
Why do you draw?
Drawing enables me to go deeper to rediscover colours, shapes and flavours; from the seemingly common kueh, to going on an imaginative journey back into an alternate Singapore where Neo Tiew remains a quaint little estate, or if Tanjong Pagar Railway Station became a high-speed railway station.
Who is your inspiration?
Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin and the Fujiko Fujio’s Doraemon series.
Tell us about one of your favourite drawings.
It’s Neo Tiew – because it meant so much to me when I was a child.
Neo Tiew is a small public housing estate in Lim Chu Kang built in 1979. The estate is now being used for military training. But back in those days, my mum and relatives used to work at the coffee shop there, selling drinks and food such as chicken rice. My dad would drive my siblings and I in his van to Neo Tiew where we would play at the circular playground. It has a small village feel, quite like Changi Village. It is a pity that the place is no longer inhabited after 2002. The drawing itself is an alternate universe of what Neo Tiew could have been.
How often do you draw?
I bring along my sketchbook with me all the time. I used to carry my sketchbook with me through river-crossings during my National Service days and I sketch whenever something catches my eye.
As our urban landscape continues to evolve, how can we keep our heritage alive?
We have come a long way since the 1960s where we favoured modernity over the existing architecture then such as the colonial-era shophouses and early modern residential blocks. The times have changed and there is now a significant emphasis on our heritage and identity. A defining milestone of this greater consciousness came about in 2004, when we witnessed the public outcry surrounding the demolition of the National Library to make way for the Fort Canning tunnel. Now, the challenge is how to manage changes within many of our historic districts and neighbourhoods.
We need to continue to be sensitive to the historical context and present circumstances beyond pragmatic needs and superficial applications. There is also a need for active and effective engagement with stakeholders like architects, historians and residents. I am envious of what I see in Kyoto in Japan or Yilan in Taiwan, but I don’t think it is possible to simply take their model and plant it in Singapore. We need to develop our own unique model for Singapore that can accommodate both our development aspirations and create a landscape with a soul at the same time.
Now, go on a journey through alternate and real Singapore through some of Xin Li’s drawings.
You can find him on his facebook page at www.facebook.com/PokPokAway and Behance at www.behance.net/PokPokandAway