“The thing when you’re in Singapore is that it’s hard to distinguish a visitor from a local.” A friend of mine was visiting the other week and that was an observation she casually pointed out as we made our way through the crowds inside the MRT station. I then carefully looked at each and every other face passing by. Nothing surprising except perhaps, in my view, the strange level of homogeneity working paradoxically against the multicultural society that is Singapore.
Since my own relocation from Paris to Singapore 2 months ago, many people have mistaken me for a long-term resident, or even a Singaporean, which left me quite perplexed. Of course, the fact that I am Asian can lead to some confusion, however, in a different instance, in Japan, a Japanese person would rarely make such a mistake. In Korea, people immediately identify me as a Japanese person before I even open my mouth. So why this confusion in Singapore? Could it mean that a Singaporean identity cannot really be defined? Or that Singaporeans themselves do not have a real idea about their own identity? Ultimately, I would like to know if there is such a thing as being quintessentially Singaporean, and whether that can be captured in one word or one sentence. Perhaps just being here means that I belong here like million others who come from all corners of the world.
Watching people in Singapore makes me imagine all the different individual stories of where they came from, why they are here, and where they are going next. I feel that it is similar to sitting in an airport terminal where fragments of lives cross-over one hour after another. There is no sense of permanence in this city. I feel that everything comes and goes, whether they are people or places. Buildings are torn to leave space for new ones; people arrive, settle for a few years, then pack up and leave without a trace.
I took this picture near Teck Lim Road, on an ordinarily hot and humid afternoon. Before I took the photo, I stood by to look at the scene, and I could not tell if it was just rubbish to be collected the following morning. It seemed too carefully arranged to be rubbish, but the chairs were not in a condition to be used either. Was it some sort of deliberate installation to trigger people’s imagination? In any case, it was intriguing and unexpected in a city that controls its environment obsessively. The chairs were each completely different, but I could imagine people sitting on them. Different people, with different faces, and different backgrounds. People who speak different languages, eat different foods. Have different faiths and beliefs, different jobs, and different dreams for the future. To me, this picture reflects the way I currently see Singapore: an accidental mix and match of people who have to share the same space and somehow become part of a narrative written by the city. Singapore is a place, which seems to be chasing its own identity yet simultaneously, it has already defined itself as a global product, guided by the common patterns of economic development and international trade.
This article was originally published in The Design Society Journal No. 6, Representation.
I was invited to Wisnu Open Space in March to talk about craft, design, and the importance of local assets in a fast moving world. The response from the audience was warm and inspired. It made me realise how many of us are thinking similarly despite our differences, and it gave me confidence about our ability to build toward our common future.
“If you do not have the opportunity to travel, how can you still travel? This question was asked by one of my hosts Eko. And I have been thinking about it for a while. Now, after some time, my response to this question is “take a different road and something new will reveal itself.” We should never underestimate the journeys that lie in proximity, the ones that have been ignored for too long, and have yet to be discovered near our doorstep. I believe that there are many of those journeys embedded in everyday life, complementing those that are formed within our minds.
The Lunar New Year took me to the streets of Chinatown in Singapore.
Return to the city of my childhood, the city that never changes. It was all familiar except for the snow. This past week was about getting back into ordinary yet joyful habits like walking from a favourite bookshop to a favourite café, through the Tuileries gardens, across place Vendôme to end up at a favourite bakery… Or picking up new sketchbooks with the hope that this new year will give me enough inspiration and imagination to fill them in…
A mosque and a temple side by side on Jonker Street in Melaka, Malaysia.
Hong Kong, the fast-paced metropolis, always seeking change and the new, chasing the glitz and glamour, may still be around, yet today, this stereotypical image of the city is counter-balanced by a growing number of creative practitioners who place culture and social value at the heart of their endeavours. It is interesting to observe how the local design industry is diversifying to lean closer to sustainable practices, perhaps in response to the overpowering notion of economic growth that is associated with the region. Design is business, but design in Hong Kong is also about shaping society and building upon meaningful layers of cultural legacy.
Photo credits: Sali Sasaki / STAG HK
A branding concept inspired by Chiang Mai, for Chiang Mai and products made in Chiang Mai.
“The elements from the Angkor civilization still have a strong presence in Cambodian people’s everyday life. Even popular rock bands use traditional Khmer music! As a part of the daily environment of the people, the cultural heritage remains a constant source of inspiration for Cambodian artists nowadays. This extraordinary artistic base enables countless possibilities of creative development.”
There are many journeys in life. Long or short, familiar or unfamiliar, from home to work, from one city to a village, from one airport to another, and all that can be seen in between… Journeys are made of all the details, but they also form the larger picture of life. I would like to tell designers to experience their work like a journey. To think of the process and not just the end result. To pick up from what they see in their surrounding environment, to make sense of things, and draw inspiration from both the ordinary and the extraordinary.
On the road or in the air, I always enjoy the travel spent before the destination. Those moments are important for reflection and observation.
Returning home can also be seized as an opportunity to understand where we come from. To leave and to return has always been an important way for me to understand the difference and the similarities between people and places. Having lived away from my home country Japan for most of my life, the journey home has taken on a stronger meaning over the years (ride home on the expressway between Osaka and Kobe, pictured above.)
My journeys are most often focused on discovery/learning and meeting new people. The importance of sustaining human connections that can lead to inspiring ideas and collaborations motivates the work I do as a designer and as an observer. The magic of human encounters should never be taken for granted, we must deeply consider and cherish.
Along the journey, picking up unique objects that cannot be found elsewhere teaches me the importance of local crafts and design. Pieces that carry a story within them and are imbued with local culture, can add meaning to one’s life even in the most abstract of ways (jungle vine bag, pictured above.)
There are journeys in which old practices merge with the contemporary. Many good things can happen at such crossroads (Thai architecture firm using traditional crafts as a source of inspiration and technique for the creation of new designs, pictured above.)
Can designers draw new journeys for others? On the road less traveled, designers can make their contribution, and teach something about the value of creative thinking while at the same time learn about people’s needs, cultures and lifestyles (small branding solutions for locally made products, pictured above.)
Journeys are also about telling the stories behind the places, people, and products from different corners. Some of the most valuable things often remain invisible, they have many lessons to teach us. (online publication that promotes the locally-made, and community-based practices, pictured above and below)
I like to mention this story (above) to refer to the journey we share towards our common future. The path of globalisation and its uncertain destination. Do we have to travel on a highway? Shouldn’t we rather get off it and slow down? Speed brings many comforts but also makes the world feel less subtle. Walking speed is my recommendation.
Last but not least: the destination. Never exactly like it is imagined, the destination is the surprise holding new promises. It’s the door that opens up to new journeys. (4:00 AM sunrise in Hayama, Japan, unexpected burst of colours that woke me up and I rushed to capture the ephemeral moment on camera, pictured above)
Collecting objects as part of the joys of traveling and wandering… Finding the unique, the surprising, the unexpected, or the precious adds much to my personal collection and memories. CRAFTED (my modest publication on Facebook) allows me to keep track of recent picks. Who knows how these could be later showcased… After collecting a hundred items, perhaps a publication or an exhibition could be envisaged.
1 + 4 : Baskets from Sarakraf Pavilion (Kuching, Malaysia)
2 + 9 : Products from Eco Plaza Green Lao, an airport shop supported by JICA that promotes eco-friendly craft products and is part of a Lao pilot-programme on tourism development (Vientiane, Laos)
3 + 6 : Colourful products from the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre (Vientiane, Laos)
5 : Wallet from Sarakraf Pavilion
7 : Good luck charm from 東大寺 Tōdai-ji temple (Nara, Japan)
8 : Packaging from T’SHOP LAI a shop selling cosmetic products from Les Artisans Lao (Laos)
10 : White Monkey Holding Peach Balm (Thailand)
I was in Kuching this month to speak at the ICOGRADA Design Week, co-organised by wREGA, the Malaysian graphic design association. My presentation was based on the idea of the ‘journey’, as there many such things in life. The hidden promises and the invisible connections. The warm feeling deep inside that keep me going. The dreams that I am chasing and the distance that separates me from them…