Singapore souvenirs have evolved from grandiose national symbols to delightfully relatable and usable items that conjure emotional memories.
BY JO TAN
Gone are the days when Singapore souvenirs are limited to Merlion paperweights or Singlish on a shirt. Local designers are presenting creations that celebrate the real Singapore experience.
Donn Koh is a founder of and designer at STUCK Design Studio, the main brains behind the Souvenirs From Singapore series that includes the Kopi Bag Mug — a narrow mug specially designed to hold a plastic-bagged drink. “While some souvenirs bluntly replicate a country’s icons to capture tourist dollars, people could quickly grow tired of these after going from their holidays back to daily life. I think a Merlion, Esplanade, or even an Eiffel Tower trinket just wouldn’t fit well into what you’d use regularly,” says Koh.
“We aim to create subtle objects that blend well into life and conjure emotional memories for Singaporeans, such as our National Service Jerry Can water-bottle, or a doorstop that clings well and resembles sticky jiu ceng gao, one of the first strikingly colourful, delectable objects many Singaporeans would have been introduced to by their families.”
Tan Li Ling, co-founder and designer at design studio Wheniwasfour, agrees. “I feel products are better received when they help people relate to personal experiences and memories,” she says, explaining why her brand’s offerings draw heavily on youthful reminiscences, including a note-card resembling an enlarged SBS [Singapore Bus Service] bus ticket, complete with dotted-lines for folding into a heart shape. “Our inspirations often come from the pre-high-technology gadgets of today: a simpler time that was more about human interaction.”
While design inspirations can be from the past, final products often differ from the originals in witty ways. Creations by award-winning designer Hans Tan include the Merlion Shopper (a fabric tote resembling the once-ubiquitous white plastic bags with red Merlion pattern) and the Fruit Bowl Lah (an exhibition piece reimagining the classic plastic colander used by fruit stalls as a gold centrepiece). Says Tan, “I’m more interested in heritage than nostalgia. Rather than reviving the old in its exact original state, I prefer interpreting the elements associated with tradition, heritage and culture, into something relevant and desirable in the modern-day context.”
Present-day Singapore also offers ample inspiration. Supermama — Singapore’s own design-incubator/gallery-shop which also collaborated on the Souvenirs From Singapore series — is perhaps best known for its Singapore-designed, Japanese-crafted porcelain collections featuring images of architecture from Bras Basah or Changi/Katong, local logos and icons to our flora and fauna.
Interestingly, the products are presented in a way to evoke the buyer’s imagination. Says founder Edwin Low, “In Supermama, we try to avoid selling products for the sake of selling. Rather, we aim to present unique stories, which are defined by each designer and maker.” With the studio’s relocation to Gillman Barracks, where it is now nestled among art galleries, Supermama will up the adventurousness of its products, creating not just its usual souvenirs, which are artworks in their own right, but a whole new audacious series dubbed Art As Souvenirs.
HURRAH FOR HERITAGE
Meanwhile, Binary Style’s scarf designs — based on MacRitchie Reservoir, Singapore’s celebrity otter family and so on — are increasingly sought after. Says Santhi Tunas, one of two sisters (both architects-turned-designers) who head the brand, “In this era of globalisation, where shopping malls increasingly carry homogenised offerings, owning unique, locally designed products can make people feel they belong to a community, while taking pride in supporting local creatives.”
Low agrees. “I think there’s been an awakening of our Singapore identity somewhat, especially after SG50. We all want a place to belong to, and as Singaporeans get better-travelled, the search for identity deepens. We are comfortable with who we are, our culture, our heritage, and we are not shy to show it.”
What Singapore souvenirs would you like to see in stores? Email your ideas to homegrown companies Design Studio and Meykrs at email@example.com.