Inside the age-old practice of Japanese tea making, tea and design intertwine to bring out the universal values of harmony and respect at the heart of human relationships.
It was 1951 when Charles and Ray Eames hosted the now historic gathering of their friends and contemporaries, including artist and designer Isamu Noguchi and his fiancé, silent film star Charlie Chaplin and other notables, at the Eames’ Case House #8 in Los Angeles, California. An assembly of talents, the momentous Japanese tea ceremony organised by Charles and Ray Eames highlighted the importance that the designers had placed on the role of design in facilitating human interactions, particularly guest-host relationships embodied in the most profound ways through the art of Japanese tea making.
With the event having been recreated several times since, both in the United States and in Japan, to celebrate the spirit that Charles and Ray Eames wanted to communicate, the latest such gathering on a tranquil Saturday morning at the XTRA Marina Square showroom in partnership with Urasenke Singapore Association brought together a select group of designers and design enthusiasts to commemorate the original ceremony and delve deep into the art and meaning of tea making. Looking beyond the choreographic ritual of the centuries-long practice and the novelties of Japanese tea preparation, the universal importance of forging caring and respectful connections to one another underpinned the act of serving and being served the tea. The room full of strangers and acquaintances bonded convivially, with conversations flowing long after the event came to an end.
The intimacy of the Japanese tea ceremony was palpable in the scrupulous and precise process of the tea making and the care taken behind each gesture of the tea master and the guests. With all five senses, awakened and alert in the exactitude of the process, the feeling of calmness overtook as the ceremony participants took turns to prepare tea with well wishes and thoughts for the guests. Conversations became hushed, but also more profound and meaningful, as if in appreciation of the moment that was no longer ordinary.
And then, everything came together – the gentle aroma inside the cup, the careful but rigorous whisking of the matcha powder with water until a layer of consistent foam formed atop of tea, the particular movements of turning of the cups, the atmosphere of the entire room. Inadvertently and perhaps deliberately, attention drew to smallest details in an effortless and freeing way, with the way the tea was passed from one person to another, the careful handling of the cup, the bond between the two people as they shared a profound moment of care. The universal and collective need for a genuine human connection spanning many centuries and diverse cultures, preserved in an intimate setting and in a delicate cup of soul-warming tea.
Back when it used to be a prominent red-light district in Singapore, Keong Saik Road and its surround have left a lasting impression on author Charmaine Leung’s identity – impactful enough for her to write a book about her memories and experiences of the neighbourhood.
While Keong Saik has lost not only its notorious roots but also a certain sense of community since then, the stories live on in Charmaine’s book 17A Keong Saik Road, revealing a colourful but wistful side of Keong Saik that is beginning to be forgotten.
1. Your book name is also an address. How is this significant?
My mother operated a brothel here when I was growing up from the 70s to the 80s. I will always remember it as a place that ‘separated’ my mother and me. We had to live apart from each other.
Growing up in 15A Keong Saik Road
But, it is also because of this address that I had the chance to meet many amazing and courageous women who influenced my life till this day. Their spirit of resilience and how they persevered to make life work against all odds are a constant inspiration for me.
Charmaine's grandmother and her mother posing in a studio
Today, 17A Keong Saik Road is the address of a restaurant.
Tell us more about your neighbours living in the area.
The people who lived in the neighbourhood were mainly Chinese, though a small population of Indians also lived in Keong Saik. The Chinese community were made up of clan associations and business owners who had their businesses on the ground floor units, brothel operators and ma je who worked in the brothels, ladies (dai gu liongs) who were sex workers, as well as others who needed a roof over their heads after a long day’s work.
I lived at 15A Keong Saik Road with my nanny, and the neighbours who lived directly above our unit at 15B was a family of seven: the father was a lorry driver, his wife a fishmonger, and they had three daughters and two sons. They also made parts of their space into cubicle rooms and leased them out to a seamstress and a cosmetics salesman who worked in Outram Park.
There was a great sense of community and belonging amongst the neighbours – a village-like atmosphere where everyone who worked and lived on those streets was friendly and seemed to know, or know of, one another. We could easily tell who was a gai fong (resident of the street) and who was a visitor to the area.
What was it like growing up in Keong Saik?
Growing up on Keong Saik was colourful. The sense of community in a village-like manner was probably the closest thing I could experience to living in a real kampung.
Little Charmaine posing at 'her playground'
As a kid, I was allowed to run along the covered five-foot walkways on Keong Saik as long as I did not cross what the adults called my ‘boundaries’ – the junctions at Keong Saik and Kreta Ayer Road, Keong Saik and Neil Road, and Teck Lim and Neil Road – where the traffic was heavy with cars. I also got to roam the grass areas at what is known as Duxton Plains Park today. I used to run up and down the green slopes, playing catch with my childhood playmates.
Which building was a major part of your childhood?
The triangular-shaped building. It used to house Tong Ah Coffee Shop. This used to be the place where residents of Keong Saik gathered in the morning for breakfast and their daily dose of gossip. I loved having the butter and kaya toast from Tong Ah for breakfast!
What is one thing that has not changed?
The sheltered ‘five-foot ways’. It is the one thing that has not changed for me in Keong Saik no matter how the inhabitants of the street, residents or business, have evolved over time.
I still feel that same ambience I used to feel walking under these covered walkways today. This is especially around the area near the Chinese temple located at 13 Keong Saik Road where, as a child, I used to look up at the large lanterns hanging above me as I passed them.
What is your one favourite building in the neighbourhood?
It is the building at 15 Keong Saik Road but not because I used to live there! 15 Keong Saik Road has what I would consider the best view of the entire Keong Saik stretch. It is situated at the intersection overlooking the three streets of Keog Saik, Jiak Chuan and Teck Lim Road. It was very good for people-watching. Today, it houses the Singapore office of ARD German Radio and TV.
What is one particular memory of the place that does not exist anymore?
Instead of thinking of a place, a whole community of ma je who was living and working on Keong Saik comes to my mind. They used to be such a common sight in the Keong Saik area and in Chinatown.
Ma Jie celebrating at a gathering
The friendships they had with each other left a deep impression on me – they were always looking out for one another, and coming to the rescue of their ‘sisters’ in need. Today, very few of them are left, and the last of them are probably in their nineties. They are a part of our history that will be forever lost.
What building has been particularly well preserved over the years?
The Chinese temple at 13 Keong Saik Road looks exactly like how I remembered it when I was growing up, and when I revisited the area in early 2000s. Although it did not add any fresh colours of paint like some of the other shophouses in Keong Saik did, it is well preserved over the years and has stood the test of time.
How do you feel about the evolving changes in the neighbourhood?
What I miss is the old neighbourhood with the people who used to live in Keong Saik. Today, it is a very different community, made up mostly of businesses, restaurants and cafes. I don’t think many people live in Keong Saik anymore. In that sense, it will never be the same Keong Saik for me.
However, I am glad to see the conservation efforts in the area. In Singapore, many old buildings have been demolished to make way for new developments. At least, I know I will always be able to point out to visitors where I used to live and play amongst these houses and alleys.
How do you think a balance can be achieved between making space for the new and preserving heritage?
I think preserving heritage does not necessarily have to be a trade-off between the new and the old. Holding onto the past for the sake of preserving heritage may not be realistic. It is also about evolution, and perhaps looking at adaptive reuse, that is, how an old building can be used in today’s context.
Take for example, The Warehouse Hotel at Havelock Road which was awarded the 2017 Architectural Heritage Awards for restoration and innovations. The character of the former warehouse has been retained while innovations were introduced to adapt that building to a new use, making it relevant for the travellers of today.
We also need to continuously educate people on the importance of heritage, and make it interesting for our future generations to want to know, explore, and make their own interpretations of heritage.
What is the lasting legacy of Keong Saik that you want people to remember?
I hope people can remember Keong Saik as a place where our forebears had come to settle from China, worked hard to make a living, and left an imprint here. It was not merely streets that provided entertainment to pleasure seekers, but a place where a community of people, despite their difficulties, persevered in working towards the hope of a better future.
Keong Saik can, and should, serve as an inspiration, or a reminder, of how far Singapore has come as a country made up mainly of immigrants who left their home countries to make a life for themselves.
17A Keong Saik Road recounts Charmaine Leung’s growing-up years on Keong Saik Road in the 1970s when it was a prominent red-light precinct in Chinatown in Singapore. An interweaving of past and present narratives, 17A Keong Saik Road tells of her mother’s journey as a young child put up for sale to becoming the madame of a brothel in Keong Saik. Unfolding her story as the daughter of a brothel operator and witnessing these changes to her family, Charmaine traces the transformation of the Keong Saik area from the 1930s to the present, and through writing, finds reconciliation.
Experts address the myths and truths about getting old and highlight the importance of inviting user participation for optimally designed senior care spaces at the recent Design Conversations panel discussion, held as part of Singapore Indesign 2016.
Dealing with and designing for the ageing population is hardly a new challenge. But more often than not, even in countries where the elderly comprise a substantial part of the demographic, the issues that are pertinent to the care and wellbeing of seniors are often swept under the rug, while the resulting design solutions for elderly care are frequently approached in a clinical manner.
Held as part of the recent Singapore Indesign 2016 event on Saturday 8 October, the Design Conversations panel discussion LiveLife: Future-Proofing our City for Senior Living saw a group of industry experts come together to discuss the creation of age sensitive environments. The speakers included Kang Fong Ing, a partner at COLOURS: Collectively Ours consultancy for collaborative design and placemaking; Dr Chong Keng Hua, Assistant Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Design at SUTD and leader of SUTD’s Social Urban Research Groupe (SURGe); and Joshua Comaroff, design consultant at Lekker Architects.
“There is a lot of social stigma when it comes to elderly care,” said Kang Fong Ing at the start of the discussion. “When people get older and older and their health begins to deteriorate, we start to shy away from addressing these issues openly.”
As part of the discussion, the idea of a more participatory process, where the elderly could have a chance to provide input about the spaces that are being designed for them, came up as an effective way for designers to become more in tune with the needs of the aged. Dr. Chong urged designers to let go of existing assumptions about the elderly and relinquish some of the control over the design process, instead, learning from the users and designing together with them for optimal results. The aspect of learning from the elderly stood out as essential in eliciting informed design responses when attempting to create age sensitive environments. As Comaroff highlighted, “When we talk about seniors, we are talking about an entirely diverse group of people. We have to [create] spaces that allow for different types of activities.”
Bringing up the typology of senior care and senior community centres, Comaroff also called for a re-examination of the disability centred, medical model of caring for the elderly that is seen as the prevalent institutional model. Comaroff highlighted the value in finding ways to domesticate and bring back social and domestic rituals into senior care spaces, much like he and his partner Ong Ker-Shing did for the APEX Harmony Lodge project, to provide comfort and ways to keep the elderly users active and engaged intellectually.
All three speakers spoke of mental, physical and social engagement with surrounding spaces and the larger community as crucial in the design of the elderly care spaces of the future. Warning of the negative aspects of overdesigning spaces, the discussion highlighted environments that could be empowering if they elicited a sense of awareness of the surroundings to keep their users more aware, mobile and agile for a more fulfilling life. “A certain amount of calculated, tolerated risk is important to keep people alert, active and strong,” elaborated Comaroff, with Dr. Chong advocating for spaces that discouraged idle passiveness through design.
“Many seniors feel that they cannot contribute much and that they are not challenged much. In truth, growing old still means growing and learning. How can we, as designers, keep the ageing population challenged and mentally alert?” inquired Chong.
The subject of coming to terms with morality and dealing with death, in many ways, summarised the discussion and highlighted the persistent social stigma associated with the latter stages of growing old. Comaroff lamented the out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality that overshadows the process of passing on and said that the process of coming to terms with the end of life was an integral part of a larger social infrastructure that could not be ignored.
“The way to start openly talking about these difficult moments of transition is to talk about death as a social eco-system,” emphasised Comaroff at the conclusion of the discussion. “Eventually you will have to take care of the person who is currently taking care of someone who is dying. We need to think of death and getting older as part of the larger process and embrace the cycle of life. Only then can we bring more attention to design in this sector.
Setting the stage for multiple forms of consumption, Blacksheep’s design for The Cooking Library in Seoul puts the focus squarely on sensory experiences, emphasised by tactile and analogue design elements.
From the moment you enter the multi-level, multi-faceted space intriguingly dubbed as The Cooking Library, it becomes immediately evident that this culinary-centric place is unlike any other in Seoul.
The Cooking Library is one of four ‘Libraries’ conceived by Hyundai Card – a credit card company under the Hyundai Motor Group. The idea was to create venues that provide an analogue respite from our fast-paced digital lives and to allow for meaningful connections through immersive and emotional experiences. The other three ‘Libraries’ focus on travel, music and design.
Focused on the art of cooking, The Cooking Library (located in Yeongdeungpo-gu, one of Seoul’s most affluent neighbourhoods) was designed by London-based specialist F&B design studio Blacksheep in collaboration with Choi Wook of One O One Architects. It extends beyond the boundaries of its cuisine-based programme with a series of spaces that connect fluidly through craftsmanship, tactility and analogue elements.
The Cooking Library extends across several levels, but Blacksheep’s CEO and founder Tim Mutton notes that the interiors have been intentionally designed without definitive floor distinctions. “Rather than being defined by the five levels, each space is distinguished by the experiences offered within and is linked to the next space through stimulation of the senses – by scent, sound and sight,” he says.
The Cooking Library’s universe of food unfolds sequentially through distinct yet connected settings, with materials, furnishings and fixtures offering clues to the change of function throughout the spatial journey. Inspired by a vision of a humble rural European factory transposed into the heart of Seoul, the interior spaces are defined by practicality and function with a warm and natural aesthetic softening the industrial palette.
Communal bakery and dining spaces on the ground floor are characterised by stone and concrete surfaces complemented by joinery and storage units in oak finishes. The tactile, visually rich journey continues on the next level, where a presentation of condiments becomes a spectacle of crafted luxury with delicately crafted brass, timber and cork accents within the displays.
Up another level, the concept of cooking takes an even more hands-on turn. The Recipe Room and Cooking School and, later, the Greenhouse and Cooking School spaces (one floor up) invite visitors for an active immersion into the world of the culinary arts, with their industrial and domestic settings gently juxtaposing against each other in a series of dynamic spatial dialogues. Below, on the basement level, an extensive pantry offers insight into a working kitchen, with Georgian wire glass panels allowing views of the cooking ingredients. All levels of The Cooking Library have factory-inspired blackened steel sanitary ware and specially commissioned artwork by British artist, David Shrigley.
Enjoying a good meal, attending a guest appearance from a famous chef, browsing cooking books and ingredients, taking part in a cooking lesson, or wandering around a herb garden – with sensorial stimulations aplenty, The Cooking Library embraces the many facets of the culinary arts, allowing the visitors to get excited and get lost in the analogue-driven discoveries of the art of cooking.
This excitement is encapsulated in Mutton’s recollection of one of his favourite details: “The bronze-lettered quote located over a cast iron hand pump at the entrance of the building reads: ‘Through water came life, through life came love.’ We want all guests to embrace and experience the love and art of cooking.”
first China office for backpack manufacturer Herschel Supply, designed by Linehouse, echoes the rapidly transforming urban fabric of its neighbourhood.
Enigmatic and eye-catching, the laneway entrance to the Herschel Supply office in the Jing’An District of Shanghai is a beguiling, asymmetrical feature. It suitably encapsulates the design philosophy of architecture and interior design practice Linehouse, and also serves as a hint to the interior framework that organises the Canadian lifestyle brand’s first China office.
The entrance, like its surrounding site, is as much a revelatory glimpse into the building’s internal activities as an indication of the surrounding urban flux. In this part of the city, many of the old residential structures are being demolished or stripped back, revealing the architectural details of Shanghai’s past.
“We wanted the design to lend itself to the streetscape, to capture this urban quality,” says Briar Hickling, co-founder of Linehouse, about the project’s relationship to its site. “Herschel is a design-driven brand and we aimed to capture both the urban/nature and utilitarian qualities in the spatial design of the office.”
As with many of the firm’s projects, the design process for the Herschel Supply office began with a desire to create a unique spatial experience that, at once, formed a dialogue between the shared and the private zones in the 134-square-metre unit and revealed the process of deconstruction relevant to the neighbourhood context. The design team deliberately used materials such as corrugated metal, concrete, raw steel and black cork to reflect the urban and utilitarian nature of the brand. A pitched metal framework was inserted into the office space as a strong gesture that extends the streetscape into the interior.
Lined with perforated and solid corrugated stainless steel, the framework dictates the different programmes. Glass partitions divide the structure and operable sliding doors unveil or conceal the meeting room and pantry areas to the open workspaces beyond. In some zones, ceiling panels were omitted to open up views to the surrounding structure, further blurring the boundaries between the ‘public’ or shared and the private, and between the new and the previously constructed.
An extension of its neighbourhood, the Hershel Supply Shanghai office is, at once, a part of its urban fabric and an exemplification of change in an evolving urban residential area. Hickling affirms, “Our approach for this project was to create something unique and unexpected, which challenges the traditional notion of what an office or workspace should be.”
Microsoft’s Taipei office by Space Matrix Singapore anchors the global brand in the local culture through spaces that enhance the employee experience and showcase the brand’s products.
For the team at Space Matrix, designing the 75,000-square-foot Microsoft Taipei office was as much of an exercise in understanding the values of the brand as it was a cultural study. In line with the client’s goals for the space, the new office design provides a departure from the previous traditional office environment, unveiling dynamic spaces to cater to the local teams’ needs, while promoting future growth.
Aligning the brand and the local culture was identified as one of the key requirements for the new office. The people-centric aspect became paramount in establishing the overall direction for the design across five floors.
“We believe that spaces are for people,” says Archie Cruda, Associate Director, Design Excellence Centre at the Singapore studio of Space Matrix. “Given that Taipei’s culture is people-centric, there was a seamless alignment in integrating the brand into the local culture and context.”
Across all levels, Space Matrix followed Microsoft’s new global design guidelines for space distribution, devised to cater to various types of human interaction: collaborative, shared and individual work spaces. The client’s main concern was that the teams might resist the changes that would come with the new office, so the design team also gave priority to creating destinations on each floor that would bring people together, building a sense of community in the process.
By bringing contextual considerations into the development of Microsoft Taipei’s office spaces, the design team enabled an easier transition from the old to the new office setting, developing work and social areas rooted in Taipei’s culture.
Thus, level 15 evokes the old heritage Mountain Line Train, level 16 transports its visitors to a lush balcony in a Taipei apartment, level 17 to a Taipei night market, and 18 to a vibrant river front. Level 19 features a customer platform. The team also developed creative graphics to bring elements of the themes to life (for example, the creative use of ceiling lights and graphics represent Taiwan’s night markets).
The integration of Microsoft products in subtle and seamless ways was another key component of the design. In Cruda’s words, “The client wanted to showcase the Microsoft product but in a very subtle, non-confrontational way, believing that technology should not overpower the space but be intuitive and enhance the human experience.” Provisions were implemented to allow visitors to interact with Microsoft’s latest developments within the new office. It shows how technology, when integrated smartly and unobtrusively, can enhance the human experience.