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Meet Lee Xin Li - The Man Behind The Much-Loved Kueh And Nostalgic Singapore Prints

When we first stumbled upon Xin Li's Singapore prints, we were amazed. Firstly, by the level of detail rendered to places and faces, and secondly, the beautiful nostalgic feel made even more visceral with his use of Tin Tin-like characters. When he presented with us his (growing) collection of kuehs prints, researched meticulously across several Southeast Asian countries, we were sold.

We have a long, in-depth chat with the man behind the much-loved prints, and find out more about his illustration techniques, and his thought on Singapore's seeming current obsession with nostalgia.

Photo credit: Chris Lim Mu Yao

1) Who is Lee Xin Li, and how did you end up venturing into creating nostalgic prints of Singapore?

I am currently a Year 4 Architecture Student from National University of Singapore. I started drawing again after a long pause since entering architecture when I picked up a illustrated journal by Guy Delisle entitled Jerusalem. I reminded me of Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin and it got me started on my imaginations of Tin Tin-like scenes in Singapore like Seletar or the Tramways.

2) How do you illustrate these prints - digitally or by hand?

The illustrations were done digitally from scratch with my trusty Wacom tablet. However, sometimes, I do a draft conceptual sketch on my sketchbook when I had something in mind.

3) From where do you draw inspiration for your works?

The stylistic inspiration came from the works of Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin or Doraemon by Fujiko Fujio both of which I had spent a great deal of time reading them during my childhood days while the inspiration for the subject matter came a multitude of sources including the exposure of architectural studies, Singapore’s built heritage or my own travels.

4) Personal favourite print?

Among those on Naiise, my personal favourite is the Paya Lebar Airbase piece, as I find it kind of amusing if such a scenario really happened. It is such absurd but humorous moments that made me remember Tin Tin or in awe of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

5) Favorite designer?

Guy Delisle, a Canadian animator and illustrator.

6) Why is design important to you?

It is fun because the design processes always lead to more discoveries for me.

7) What is like to be a designer in Singapore?

I think I am new to the scene but it is amazing to see the plethora of works that is popping up in Singapore in recent years and seeing the various methodologies and explorations employed in these works that are thought provoking. Despite of the pragmatic concerns of being a designer in Singapore, I remain positive.

8) Why do you think Singaporeans are so attracted to nostalgic objects? Is it a trend, or do you think it represents a more lasting phenomenon/mindset among Singaporeans?

I came across Where’s my Katong? by Bertha Harian (27th February 2014) today.

I felt that the loss of the familiar in an ever-changing Singapore is one of the major reasons why Singaporeans are attracted to nostalgic objects. The built environment could change at such a fast rate that it is unsettling even for a local. The estate where I used to play in my childhood days, Neo Tiew has been turned into a FIBUA village, the Tay Ban Guan Supermarket is almost non-existent in Katong today, traces of Pulau Tekong’s kampongs have been visibly erased from the island and even iconic buildings like Katong Red House Bakery, Old School at Mount Sophia, the former National Library and former National Theatre are not spared from the wrecking ball or some contemporary intervention.

Hence, I see nostalgia as a response to the changes that are taking place in the physical environment around us. Perhaps, the only thing we might still find familiar in Singapore might just be kueh or chicken rice which are less likely to disappear compared to a historical landmark like Bukit Brown within a couple of years. The mamak shop at the corner of the road get converted into an upscale café or the historical building you thought you knew of has turned into some contemporary-heritage hybrid that would probably be alien to a returning resident to Singapore.

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