A realistic gaze at the romantic in me

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Found some photographs I took five years ago – I remember it was the first time I stepped into, or ‘explored’ as my bright-eyed and curious self would have called it back then, the neighbourhood estate of Ang Mo Kio.

Having been brought up in a relatively newer neighbourhood in the western part of Singapore, I remember having a fascination and love for older estates in Singapore such as Ang Mo Kio, Toa Payoh and Queenstown – ironically, two of which I would end up staying at in the next few years.

These were the mature estates I considered the ‘true heartlands’ of Singapore. After all, our country is known for its efficient public housing system, and its policies for assigning newly-wed couples to property of their own. The new mass-constructed flats, however, were mostly build with pared-down or more uniform design in order to cut production costs and speed up construction.

Hence I found myself drawn, increasingly over the years, to the tacky, mismatched paint facades and brick surfaces of older HDB flats.

Buildings then were shorter – the 16th floor rooftop level flat I lived in for most of my childhood in the then less-developed west area was already considered very high. Nowadays, a typical HDB flat would likely go above 30 storeys, and for more premium classes of public housing like the famous Pinnacle@Duxton (that note for my foreign readers, is not representative of the living conditions of average Singaporeans among the 80% who reside in public housing) would go as high as a dizzying fifty storeys – its rooftop turned into a local or tourist attraction for skyscraper viewing, even charging an admission fee.

Such is the way public housing has evolved over the years. I remember when I first went to the home of my current boyfriend, who is, ironically and perhaps with an amazing affinity, an Ang Mo Kio resident for the entire 20 odd years of his life. He was extremely amused by the way I admired all the old things that no one pays attention to, and things that are wearing, withering away – in the ordinary person’s eyes, nothing to be proud of.

I admired the old faded cream walls of the pillars at the void deck leading to the lifts, the long corridors with adjacent units (new generation flats nowadays are designed for more privacy and inevitably minimises the need for social interactions or small talk) looking out over a low barred banister, on which some neighbours draped and dried their laundry the old-school way, and the way everyone on the same floor seemed to know each other. While at my new generation house, my family only vaguely knew the Indian family opposite us, and thanked them with red packets when they gave us traditional Indian snacks during Deepavali.

I also admired the interior of his old, almost thirty year-old flat, the peeling paint, the cave-like kitchen with the back light against the laundry poles laden with clothes, with a blue mosaic tiled arc framing the kitchen doorway. I admired the pastel blue colour of the walls, which he told me was not always this colour but has weathered drastically with time. I told him I like how faded it looks, and also the way a Stephen Chow comedy/martial arts movie poster hung above a metal rack of clothes he shared with his elder brother.

Was I romanticising the old? Perhaps, in some ways, I have always tended to look at things through tinted glasses, although less so now as I aged myself. But this romantic streak in me was what led me to capture moments like the above photographs, and edit them the way it ended up – not a literal representation of what I saw, but what I actually felt in that moment, as I observed the scene in front of me.

Nowadays, I tend to edit my photos less, compared to maybe five years ago, when I would play with the colour tones, monochrome, and slightly faded/rosy vintage effect that I had taken to at that time. Compared to five years ago, I also write less poetry – which I produced prolifically, especially when I was falling in love.

I used to lament myself for writing romantic fiction only to realise that it’s not really fiction anymore, and unlike many good writers, my imagination and powers of creation are vastly limited. I could, after all, only write fiction from real life, so how fictitious is it really? But what is the point of fiction anyway? This leaves me with a whole new essay to write.

And there I’ve said it – now most of the time, I write essays. Essays about the world, thoughts about humanity, and reflections about my thoughts. My reading tastes have changed too, and I find myself reading only three fiction books out of ten, the rest being memoirs and essays on various topics, many of them by journalists. So what happened to me, the journalism major who resisted journalism, and turned obstinately to creative writing instead, only to find myself back to where I had started?

Honestly, I was incredibly upset for a time when I found that my poetry and photography inspiration seemed to have faded away together. The last poem I wrote, it seems, was two years ago. That was when my father passed away – but I too am not sure whether there is a correlation, whether grief has taken away my inspiration, and why now, after times have settled into normalcy, it is not being returned to me.

For much of my formative years, poetry and photography were a vital part of how I saw and made sense of the world. It is also worth noting that my late father and I bonded deeply through photography. After his diagnosis, I bought him a camera and he would take these spectacular shots of the sunrise – which he said, after so many years, he found the time to slow down and appreciate every single day. Not surprising coming from someone who is terminally ill, but then again, why do we always understand the truth of all cliches when our time is running out?

I’m not sure how these changes in self-expression reflects the change in my intrinsic nature. Now I find myself writing down more literally the things I think about, and have been told that it makes an impact on the reader. I focus more on thoughts than emotion, and ponder over the meaning of emotions more than describing the feelings themselves with flowery, ambiguous language.

Perhaps that is also the product of going through the rigorous self-questioning process of therapy, the result of teaching General Paper, a critical thinking and argumentative essay writing subject to junior college students. It could also be the process of growing up, of entering the working world, of witnessing the dominance of business over creativity, sales targets over the appeal to emotion, that made me more pragmatic. Or quite simply the task of paying the rent and bills by myself every month could have taken away the tinted lenses through which I viewed the world, recorded as evidence in the photographs above, from five years ago.

But I’m coming to terms with my new self. I appreciate honesty, vulnerability, and imperfections even more so now – and not because I think imperfections are ‘beautiful’.

I started this blog like no other before, not to showcase my perfect polished works of creativity and literature, but to document the incomplete reflections and endless questions of living life every day. There are no answers, no conclusions like a short story, no finale in a play or poem. Because isn’t life a long, arduous journey of writing our own non-fiction essay?

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What the payphone taught me

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A public telephone in Kuching, Sarawak

Today, not for the first time, my phone died on me – not surprising, considering that I’m using an iPhone 4…I know. Probably an antique by today’s standards – where were we, iPhone 8S or something?

Technology and I are not the best of friends, and I definitely consider myself more of an old school person who would rather live in the 80s or relive the 90s of my childhood. Definitely not the typical millennial you can think of.

Tonight, I was supposed to meet my boyfriend after work and after his night class, and we hadn’t arranged a meeting point or time. So when my phone died on me, I resorted to…the good old payphone. And guess what I hadn’t even realised (and probably very few people know) that every MRT station in Singapore has a payphone (I think)!

So I was at the MRT station near my workplace, clumsily trying to put a 20 cent coin through the coin slot, all while attracting curious (mortifying) stares from the security guard and the staff at the control station. My boyfriend, who was still in class, did not pick up the call.

You see, unlike the mobile phone, the person who received a missed call from you can’t just call you back. There’s also no caller ID. You can’t text the person to tell them you called either.

So I took the train in the direction of home, hoping that he won’t end up blindly waiting for me somewhere, only to receive a text from me when I got home and managed to revive my phone with the charger.

When I arrived at my stop around 40 minutes later, I located another payphone and called again. This time, my call got through. I was so happy and relieved. Suddenly, it seemed like he was so far away. Someone whom I’d held close every day, reached easily and effortlessly with a text or a sticker on Telegram, was suddenly so unreachable.

Tonight I learned for the first time (or maybe remembered what I’d forgotten from my childhood), that every 10 cents gave you 2 minutes of call time. Because I had 20 cents, I could speak with him for 4 minutes.

Suddenly, those four minutes, usually so easily passed and idled away with a few mindless scrolls on Facebook, watching Insta-stories, and refreshing my Inbox, became so precious and so genuinely felt. I literally saw the passing of time on the payphone timer, and hours and minutes, taken for granted as part of each day, became reduced to the split second. Suddenly, I recognised time again, like an old friend I’d long forgotten.

In this digital age where technology and smartphones reduce everything to mindless routines and effortless endeavours, we take time for granted. Everything is sped up, passing by, convenient and half-hearted at the same time – you could be talking to someone while dealing with a few other screens, or checking your social media feed.

We’ve managed to speed life up, do more things with less time. But are we really making the most out of the time we have now?

Napoli: Beauty in the chaos

Out of all the cities I explored during my trip to Italy last year, Naples (or Napoli in Italian) left the deepest impression – for many reasons.

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The first thing that hit me upon stepping into Napoli was chaos. Being the gateway to Southern Italy, which differs greatly from the more affluent and internationalised North, it was the most flavourful, colourful and boisterous and crazy place I visited in Italy, or maybe even Europe thus far.

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On street photography

Discovered Robert Frank’s photography today – would really love to learn more about different photographers and their work. Robert Frank’s collection of photographs The Americans revealed a side, or perhaps the reality, of an America that was not living the American Dream, at a time when it was most glorified.

Words that come to my mind when I look at his pictures – emotive, raw, honest, grit, invisible, poignant. 

As a photographer, I can identify deeply with his photographs because of the way they are shot – he chose to remain invisible, capturing the moments he saw quickly and then moving on.

I know there are ethical and philosophical debates about street photography and the role of the photographer. Some choose to make a story from their pictures by interacting with and seeking to understand their subjects, dispelling certain assumptions that we would make of an image or moment at first glance.

Others, however, choose to remain a fly on the wall, simply observing and sieving out the beauty and humanity in honest, everyday moments.

I belong to the latter camp, mainly because I am an introvert and the act of taking in and connecting with my environment takes me into the zone and sometimes even overwhelms me. When I walk around with my camera I feel it becoming an extension of my existence.

While I understand the social impact that interacting with photography subjects and telling their stories can make, I also have this strong inkling that the mystery and poignancy of certain photographers’ work would dissipate if they tried to break that barrier of unspoken connection between them and the moment.

Robert Frank is one of them.

Haven’t been struck by photography in this way for such a long time. Leaving this post with my favourite photos from him, and a quote that inspired me from an NPR interview:

“Like a boxer trains for a fight,” Frank says, a photographer needs to practice by getting out and taking pictures every day. “It doesn’t matter how many he takes or if he takes any at all. It gets you prepared to know what you should take pictures of or what is the right thing to do and when.”

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While perhaps less purposeful than photojournalism and documentary photography, street photography also plays a part for social justice in its own way. By capturing the humanity and emotions found in ordinary moments that we share with millions of strangers across the globe, it makes us realise that we aren’t that distant or vastly different after all.