A Celebration of Singaporean Urban Icons for SG50

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Singapore’s 50th birthday, or National Day is this weekend and my inbox, Facebook and Instagram feed have been filled with organizations and friends already celebrating. From the Urban Redevelopment Authority hosting a street art exhibition to local designers having pop-up shops, everyone seems to have their own way of celebrating Singapore’s 50 years of city building.  One of my favorite ideas so far has been a project that recreates everyday urban objects and furniture as souvenirs from Singapore.

Souvenirs from Singapore, is a collection of 50 objects inspired by Singapore icons and reinterpreted for the modern tourist (or Singaporean) by lifestyle store Supermama. The collection was done in collaboration with other local designers and includes everyday items, so of which contain “inside jokes” for Singaporeans.  My favorite pieces in the collection are inspired by the city itself: its buildings, playgrounds and urban furniture.

The first is a dish inspired by chess tables found in the void decks of HDB (Housing Development Board, or public housing) blocks. Personally it reminded me of the yellow tiled table and chairs under the block I lived in briefly in 2011. Although I never played chess there myself, I did use these seats often to wait for friends and enjoyed seeing how people gathered there everyday as I passed by.

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Void deck chess table, photo by Supermama Shop & My former void deck table, photo by author

Next is a door stopper resembling a dragon playground, iconic for all Singaporean children growing up in the 1970-1980’s. So iconic in fact this and other older, tiled playgrounds have been featured in a series of other gifts and souvenirs from Singaporean designers. They also have been featured in many retro-themed photo shoots by local fashion labels and even wedding photographers. I took the photo below while doing field research in an HDB estate in 2012.

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Dragon doorstop, photo by Supermama Shop & Little Dragon playground, photo by author

There is also a set of miniature red and white plastic kopitiam chairs. These chairs are found in kopitiams (coffee shops) across the island and at many events from block parties, to weddings, to funerals held in HDB void decks. The chairs were even featured in my husband and my engagement photos. We sat on stacks of them in a back room of our church where we used to teach.

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Kopitiam Chairs, photo by Supermama Shop & Our engagement photo, by Ronald Leong

My favorite tongue-in-cheek souvenir though is an HDB block engagement ring. Pointing to the “uniquely Singaporean engagement” of asking “do you want to buy a flat together?” before proposing with an engagement ring. While I personally did not get posed this question, some of my friends were faced with this decision of purchasing a flat together before they even began to think about a wedding.  While this approach to buying a first house is foreign to many urban Americans that rent for the first few years of married life, this Singaporean approach seems quite pragmatic in light of the two to four years it could take between buying and moving into a new HDB BTO (built to order) flat.

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HDB Engagement Ring, photo by triggerhappy & HDB flat with mural painting, photo by the author

These souvenirs have been so well received, mostly by Singaporeans, that some items sold out at last week’s soft launch. Personally I love how these items embrace urban objects held dear to Singaporeans, and uniquely Singaporean interactions with them; such as the HDB engagement ring. Some of these icons though today are disappearing, such as the old playgrounds, as new developments emerge.

As for my own souvenirs from my travels to Singapore earlier this summer, I unfortunately missed the National Day launch of this collection.  I did however manage to track down a set of Supermama’s Singapore Icon HDB plates, released a few years ago. It’s nice to come home to see this reminder of Singapore’s urban form hanging on the walls of our new home.

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Our HDB Plates by Supermama & my former view of HDB flats in Singapore, photos by the author.

After a summer of traveling, I can’t help but wonder what sorts of urban objects might represent other cities as souvenirs? Are there pieces of the physical city that we related to but may not notice in our everyday life? New York City designers have already iconized its blue and white, to-go bodega coffee cups with a ceramic version. Portland designers have also recreated the icon on their airport’s famous carpeting.  What if there were also a collection of miniature chairs from Bryant Park or the Time Square Plaza?

As I settled into a new city I am also excited to find out what makes this place unique not only to outsiders but also to its residents.  I look forward to learning its “inside secrets” which may not yet be depicted on souvenirs.

You can read more about other Singaporean designed souvenirs in TODAY newspaper.

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