On The Origin Of Figment
One Raffles Quay, Marina Bay Sands, Asia Square.
Glass and steel, glass and steel, and still more glass and steel.
Le Quest, Icon, Dover Park View.
White and grey, white and grey, and still more white and grey.
Singapore has become a country swarmed by GFA-optimized, accountant-designed rather than architect-designed, copied-and-pasted buildings. Some even say the national bird of Singapore is the crane.
Throughout my years abroad, I had repeatedly returned to a Singapore as a sprawling construction site. I could only find mounting anxiety in my gut. You know, that feeling of not being able to recognise your own country. We were slowly drowning ourselves with climate change, yet furiously dog-paddling to keep ourselves afloat through land reclamation – which seemed to only restart the process afresh.
Are we losing our humanity, and the world along with it?
I guess I was simply grasping for a more permanent reminder of who we are. A building block for our identities, you could say. Singaporean works of art that could serve to anchor and inspire us to live better in an increasingly uncertain and ambiguous world.
And so I made my way back to Singapore and set about driving change by curating local exhibitions with emerging artists. These exhibitions were held in vacant shophouses in Singapore’s red light district of Geylang, a fitting exposé of our bohemian underbelly. One such exhibition was titled ‘Singapore, Inc.’, in response to the relentless Singapore economic behemoth that ran more like a conglomerate than a country.
I must say, I was plenty idealistic. I rallied some friends to start a young art collector’s circle, but just wasn’t able to get the momentum going. I even took on the obligatory finance gig to help fund these activities. Still, things just fizzled out.
But you know what? These people that had been coming to the shows, they weren’t necessarily looking to buy art. They were just curious to see what the inside of these heritage shophouses actually looked like! – Cue nonstop selfies with shophouse facades and signature interiors, and a flashback to not being able to exit from the front of my home due to couples having their wedding photos taken and influencers testing out their latest poses.
These shophouses were seemingly Singaporean works of art in their own right. And they were right.
Look at the facades of any of these shophouses and you get Islamic rain eaves, Japanese-manufactured Peranakan tiles, European-inspired Corinthian pillars, and Chinese Jian-Nian stuccoes of mythical beasts all at once. This is, quite literally, Singapore.
So you see, the logical next step was to take the risk and start Figment out of my childhood home. She was a black and white, peranakan-style shophouse that barely accommodated our traditional three-generation Chinese household, stuffed to the brim not only with family members but also with a variety of hoarded antiques that my parents had hauled back from around the world.
My parents understood and supported my decision to transform our family home. My father was already a champion for heritage, having had the foresight to invest in shophouses from more than thirty years ago. At the time, many shophouses were to be found in less than savoury neighborhoods, awash with brothels and hostess bars. For all his efforts, he was the laughing stock among his friends!
We collaborated with several local designers to reimagine what it would mean to live in these shophouses today, all while sustainably integrating and respecting the local context.
Inspired by the Case Study Houses in post-war California, we named them Case Study Homes, and they were meant to be experimental laboratories for living. Renowned design studio Ministry of Design was selected to reimagine my childhood home, Canvas House, as a blank canvas for us to tell our story.
Everything was painted white, making for a reset button of sorts. It was total creative destruction. Look more closely and you’ll see that we had actually retained much of the past, revealing bits and pieces of history with timber and brick wall cut outs.
We even commissioned a brilliant local ceramist, Weekend Worker, to craft ceramic mugs pigmented by the soil taken during the renovation of the shophouse.
But Covid-19 struck and we soon found ourselves expanding into a void. Travel restrictions meant there were no incoming renters from overseas. We had to hold our open houses with thermometers and tubs of hand sanitizer.
After pouring my savings into Figment I now had no choice but to sell my apartment and apply for a temporary bridging loan to keep the company alive.
Figment was ultimately saved by a small but growing group of members who felt the same way we did about the work we were doing… and who wanted to help us bring back shophouse living. Little by little, they spread the word and things just worked out in time.
Some voted with their bags, packed up and left their cookie-cutter condos. Others voted with their careers. Others, still, with just simply their time and attention.
I know there are many more like us out there who ‘get it’, and many others who don’t.
But that’s okay.
Figment is not for everyone, though everyone is welcome.
And as they say, the rest is history.
Figment strives to sustain and co-create the Singaporean identity through partnerships with local artists, designers and craftspeople. We honour our local context through researching the shophouse, street and the neighbourhood, sustainably developing our built heritage through adaptive reuse.
We are shophouse-proud, and this is who we are.
CEO of Figment