We caught up with street artist Yip Yew Chong – the man who draws on walls and creates portals into Singapore’s gorgeous past
He works alone. Standing by his paint supplies in the heat, nothing really disturbs his creative process. There’s always someone standing around watching him paint (like us!), taking pictures or curiously asking him about his mural-in-progress. And he loves it – “It’s part and parcel of street art. There’s joy in it. Else, I would just work in a studio,” says 49-year-old Yip Yew Chong, one of Singapore’s most popular street artists. His insta-worthy walls are instantly recognisable and if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen them and loved them.
Often it’s someone older taking a moment of their life to thank him. We caught up with self-taught artist Yip Yew Chong (again) on the sidewalk as he was finishing his mural on Mohamad Ali Lane in Chinatown. Halfway through our conversation, a man named Andrew stopped by to thank Yip with “all this heart”. “We are very grateful for your work,” he added genuinely. He leaves, only to come back five minutes later with two cold drinks – one for Yip and one for me. Not before long, an aunty from the nearby shop came with ice cream and a big smile. It was a hot afternoon and these were the just warmest gestures from a community that truly admires him and his creations. #imelt
Yip shares his story…
“I created my first mural – the one on Everton Park – in 2015. Street art was picking up steam then and when I saw some in Kampong Glam, I wanted to give it a try. I asked the landlord of the building if I could paint on his wall. I showed him some of my sketches and promised to paint the wall back in the same colour if he didn’t like my first mural. It’s still there today.”
“No, it’s not different from painting on canvas. Actually, for me, it’s easier to draw on walls as it’s so much bigger. I paint my murals life size so that can interact with them. Although I introduced interactivity in my mural, I think people expect it from my work now. It’s become a style which is a good thing. And it’s hard to count, but I’ve drawn on over 40 walls in Singapore.
The last time I painted on canvas was in 2006, but I’m going back to it now. My canvas painting style is same same but different.”
“I left my job three months ago. I used to work for a UK-based company as the Financial Director here in Singapore. All my murals, expect this one I’m making right now, I created while I was working full-time. It was hard and I could only paint on weekends. The 44m long Thian Hock Keng mural took me 10 weekends to complete between work and three overseas trips. I finally took a few days off to complete it… and it rained non-stop during that time!”
“Now? This is my semi-retirement. Too much pressure to call it a career switch. I’ll do it in my own time. My kids are grown up now – one is 21 and another is 19 years old – and when they both decided to study in local universities, I decided it’s time for me to something I love”
“I am inspired by my memories of Old Singapore. About 30-40 years ago, Singapore looked like this. I grew up in Chinatown, on Sago Lane and then Smith Street, and when I got married I moved to Everton. This mask cart used to be on this street in the 80s – read the plaque. He was a real person and I drew him from memory and various old photos.”
“Even this mamakshop with Abdul Kadri. I used to go to his shop to buy sweets and knick-knacks as a kid. He taught me my first Tamil words – kaalai vanakkam – that means good morning!”
“I always have a vague idea what to paint, then I researched on Google and look at old, blurry pictures. I mix n’ match these old images off Google search to create a scene in my head. Then I draw from my memories but also get inputs from oral history…
“When I’m painting people come and add to the story of the mural. They will say, ‘hey, you should add a bunch of bananas and toothpaste’. Since I’ve seen that Singapore, I instantly know how it should look, where it should be put… Oral history matters. I draw everything freehand and after the outline, I imagine the details and sometimes add bits that are told me by people.”
“Yes, my street art is multi-racial. I draw what I see everywhere. This is how we live in Singapore. I’ve painted all the races in my murals including Eurasians, Caucasians and Sikhs. I also feel and hope that it promotes racial harmony.”
“Look out for the tabby cat in my street art. When I was young and lived on Sago Lane, we had cats in our house. Not really pet cats, purely functional and practical ones… to kills all the rats” he laughs.