Unsung Singapore icons: 10 hyperlocal heroes worth celebrating

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To commemorate National Day, The Sunday Times celebrates 10 hyperlocal heroes – things, people or places – which gained new relevance during the pandemic.

Rain or shine, Boo Chin Joo plays the erhu at MacRitchie Reservoir each weekend

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Weekend mornings at MacRitchie Reservoir are never complete without a sunny-side-up of sonorous tunes from erhu maestro Boo Chin Joo.

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From 6 to 10am, the 72-year-old retiree mounts his stage, a pavilion near the reservoir’s bandstand, serenading passers-by on his two-stringed Chinese fiddle.

He says in Mandarin: “When I started playing here, I didn’t use a loudspeaker. But as more people came to listen, I decided to use one so everyone can enjoy the music.”

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A toast to Mr Shi Pong Shu of kopi institution Heap Seng Leong


Dressed in his signature white singlet and striped pyjama pants, Mr Shi Pong Shu of heritage coffee shop Heap Seng Leong is probably Singapore’s most hardworking kopi-and-toast hero.

From 5am to 5pm daily, Mr Shi – who is in his 80s (he cannot remember his birth year) – dishes out the quintessential local breakfast at his retro-chic kopi institution in North Bridge Road.

He flips the bread over charcoal by hand, uses a fuss-free tin lid to scrape off burnt bits of toast and deftly slips ice-cold wads of butter in between the slices and into steaming cups of kopi guyou (coffee with butter).


Home-grown horror tales spook a new generation


Among the genres of local literature is one that has received scant critical regard, yet is perhaps most emblematic of the home-grown bestseller: the Singapore horror story.

Ask your average Singaporean about local literary icons and, chances are, what springs to mind will be the eerie red eyes that haunt the covers of Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories anthologies, which have been spooking readers since 1989 and have sold more than 1.5 million copies.

The pseudonymous Lee, whose identity has never been revealed, published Volume 26 last year. It has proven to be a pandemic hit, charting on the national Straits Times bestseller list for 30 weeks.


Indian classical flautist Niranjan Pandian connects souls through music


Indian classical flautist Niranjan Pandian was in his final year of studies for an accountancy degree when he decided to drop out to focus on his first love – music.

It was not a decision the now 28-year-old, who has been playing music since he was 10, took lightly.

He was juggling his studies at the Singapore University of Social Sciences and a rising music career, which included gigs overseas.


Retired hawker Y.L. Thien, 78, makes art out of fallen twigs


Take a walk in Pek Kio and, if you are lucky, you might spot an elderly man creating portraits out of fallen twigs on the ground.

All it takes is a gust of wind to undo his artistic arrangements, but Mr Y.L. Thien, 78, does not mind. “If the wind blows it away, I can still create another one,” he says in Mandarin, bent over a work in progress – a portrait of Hongniang, a maidservant from a Tang-dynasty tale.

Mr Thien, who lives in a rental flat in the estate, has been making art on the ground near a carpark in Owen Road since last year.


Uncle Chia, 82, spreads joy with pet songbirds in plush hotel


Birdman Chia Eng Seng, 82, places his pet songbirds in the verdant atrium of Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay hotel every morning.

Birdsong soon fills the sky-lit 21-storey atrium, heightening the sense that this is an indoor forest implanted in the refurbished hotel in Raffles Boulevard.

The man behind this urban enchantment has trundled up to world-class hotels in his van for over a quarter-century, uplifting visitors with musical birds, especially so in a prolonged pandemic.


Unsung S’pore Icons: Dumpling Bag from Beyond The Vines goes places


Never has a bag ensnared the nation quite like the Dumpling Bag. And it was created by a home-grown brand, no less.

With its distinct ruched closure, the water-resistant bag from Singapore-based design studio Beyond The Vines is now everywhere you turn.

It is casually slung over a chair at a cafe (when dining in was still allowed), in a corner at the gym, peeking out from a grocery shopping cart during a supermarket run.


Unsung S’pore icons: Fair winds for cruises to nowhere


Once seen as grandma’s vacation or a floating casino on the high seas, cruises to nowhere have found new fans over the past six months.

Passing through security checks and immigration clearance at Marina Bay Cruise Centre ignites the distant memory of travel. What was once an obligation, even a chore, now feels novel.

Aboard, there are activities for all ages. On Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas, queues snake around its surf simulator FlowRider and rock climbing walls. Guests whizz and dodge on bumper cars in the Seaplex, an indoor activity area.


Unsung S’pore Icons: Straits Art Company, a one stop for art supplies


Straits Art Company, a small business that opened in 1947, has helped many of Singapore’s pioneer artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Basuki Abdullah and Georgette Chen source for European-imported fine arts materials and track down that perfect shade of chilli reds.

Later, a second generation of artists such as Chua Ek Kay, Tan Swie Hian and Ong Kim Seng also shopped here, not just for supplies but also for advice on how to make the most of their materials.

Today, Singapore’s oldest art supplies store continues its time-honoured tradition of providing oils, watercolour paints and easels – to families looking to art as a way to destress during the pandemic.


Unsung S’pore icons: Group buys now a way of life in some HDB estates


Working from home has its perks, but presents the perennial problem – what to eat for lunch?

Cooking is too time- consuming, the cost of meal deliveries adds up fast and who wants to schlep to the coffee shop in the unrelenting midday heat?

Group buys, which gained popularity last year, have become a convenient solution. Hosts of neighbourhood group buys collate orders from neighbours, who pick up the items from their homes.


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