Thursday, 2 May 2019

RENOVATION FOR THE D'OUTH HOUSE - Part 1: Flat Viewings, Online Research, HDB Resale Flat Purchase Process, & HIP Options

The documentation on this blog makes a beeline towards the domestic! For we have begun works on what will probably be two very major long-term projects in 2018/2019 - the first of which is the HOUSE PROJECT, which I thought I should document for the benefit of others who have come after us since we too relied a lot on the power of INTERNETS to find out how to do all this.

Table of Contents:
  1. Flat Viewings
  2. Online Research
  3. HDB Resale Flat Purchase Process
  4. HIP Options
  5. HIP Works & Bathroom Fixtures
  6. Renovation Budgeting
  7. Appointing Renovation Contractor
  8. House Design Layout
  9. Windows Installation
  10. Kitchen Appliances and Sink
  11. Tiling Selection
  12. Aircon Installation
  13. Lighting Design
  14. Electrical Layout
  15. Paint Scheme
  16. Doors
  17. All the rest of the Non-built-in Furniture
  18. Soft Furnishings
  19. MORE TO COME...

1. Flat Viewings

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We began our house search by doing viewings in earnest. Or sorta kinda. The first few random estate agents whom we had called up also seemed to know that we were NOOBS/NOT YET FULLY FORMED/NOT ACTUALLY VERY SERIOUS BUYERS because they were as awkward as we were. But the point of flat viewing was to accrue an understanding of the public housing flat formats available in Singapore. In order to ease us into the business of flat viewing, the first flats that we viewed were also in the same block that we were renting, so it was like looking into a duplicate or mirror image of the flat we were in - at least this was something we were a little familiar with and could comment on. (Looking into strangely depopulated duplicate husks of our own flat...)

Source: HDB Website - Types of Flats
Fun fact: Our flat is an older 3A model which is 796sqft (74sqm), meaning our flat is actually larger than the standard 3-Room or 3-NG flat.

Type/Size of flat: Based on our MINI budget we decided to look for 3 room and 3.5 room HDB Resale flats (public housing in Singapore). (This is equivalent to a "2 bedroom flat" in the UK, is usually around 60 to 65 sqm, and has 2 bathrooms). Private/condos were out of the question because I didn't have that amount of savings and also that would be pushing ourselves into a hard financial position. But a very modest HDB flat was definitely within our means. For public housing we had the option of either BTO or Resale. It would take an estimated 3-5 years to wait for a Build-to-Order (BTO) flat and that also would mean 3-5 years more of interminable renting, plus I was only eligible for a 2-room BTO under the Singles (Non-Citizen Spouse) scheme, so we went straight into focusing our energies on looking for a 3/3.5 room Resale flat (I'd be 'sole owner' under the Non-Citizen Spouse Scheme, George would be my 'essential occupier', and we would still receive a housing grant of S$25,000).

Agent/No Agent: Next, there was the question of whether we would work with an estate agent or not. The good thing about an agent is that they can do all the leg work and arrange for multiple viewings in one evening. However, you run the real risk of it being a sort of psychological game, where the highs and lows of the tour experience may have been designed by the agent to convince you of the virtues of a particular flat, by contrasting different elements, such as seeing a flat with strange or extreme modifications, followed by a normal boring flat, and then another strange flat with a crazy saxophone player outside it who toots away every evening [REAL INCIDENT] - by contrasting an ordinary flat with a TERRIBLE FLAT it obviously helps to make even the most ordinary flat seem a little better than it really is. But hey, we aren't really wanting to see the worse case scenarios here when searching for that dream house...

Criteria: After many viewings, we devised our own criteria for what we were looking for. We liked things like the old terrazzo that often came with old flats, but not TOO CRAZY COLOURED. We were also very particular about the view. We liked either a city view, or a nature view, but not really a suburban view. It also seemed that some people liked being able to see their cars from their flat, so they enjoyed seeing a view of a carpark, but we were not those people. A lot of the "FULLY FURNISHED MOVE-IN IMMEDIATELY" type flats were not our style, so their fully furnished nature was not a plus point for us either.


Big Terrazzo!

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So many different Terrazzos in HDB Flats!

* George also pointed out that it was quite odd to him that both me and Dingmother always started talking about visibility of ANTS whenever we looked at surfaces and that maybe people in other countries did not have "VISIBILITY OF ANTS" as a criteria for flooring/countertop colours. But we have so many different ants here in Singapore. CAN WE SEE THE ANTS WHEN THEY ARE WALKING OVER THE FLOOR? THAT IS A SERIOUS QUESTION! [And for those living in cold non-tropical ant-less countries who have never thought about whether ants will be visible on your floor or countertop, the answer is: Yes, yes, I would actually like to be able to see the ants. I do want to know where the ants are. I WOULD LIKE MAXIMUM ANT VISIBILITY!!]

Seeing a lot of the same size of flats gives you an idea of the possible fittings, layouts and modifications of that type of flat. For example, we viewed a lot of 3.5 room flats in the AMK area and these were always the ones that received an upgrade of an additional room at the end of their flats. A lot of them had reconfigured their walls in different ways, such as by knocking down the store or hacking down walls and erecting different walls to make different shapes, which gives one ideas about the possible iterations on the same template...

On our individual efforts, as well as the help of an agent for some part, and the Dingfather (our honorary agent for a while), we saw a grand total of 22 flats before finding the ROWELL FLAT.

What we chose: See a lot of flats on our own with no fixed agent

2. Online research


The view from the only flat that we really liked in AMK...

Unfortunately, all of the flats that we 'kinda' liked in Ang Mo Kio were on the pricey side (nearly 400k / over 400k) which really could not really be justified because it was just so far away from Fun Things in Town and it might result in us having a very socially isolated existence. Some other flats we saw had red flags, such as CCTV cameras being installed everywhere (for what reason did the owner justify to HDB on the installation of CCTV? loanshark? private dispute? etc), weird looking doors and doors which could not be unlocked (was this really a home? why were rooms inaccessible to potential house viewers? why had these unusual office/industrial/shop doors been installed into the residential apartments?), very low floors (potentially affected by smoke from the incessant burning of taoist offerings, and noises from roads, funeral trumpets, construction sounds, schools, etc). All in all, its just not that cheap to buy a flat in the heartlands! And more crucially, some of these flats were older than me (a few were over 40 years old), which could result in loan issues (if you buy or take over a flat with less than 60 years, the housing loan may be disallowed) - and in the distant future, by getting an extremely old flat, we might deprive ourselves of the option of being able to sell and buy a different flat if we so wished to...

George found Edgeprop's website which had a useful map detailing the per square foot cost of all the public housing in Singapore - Edgeprop Analytic Heatmap - which gave us a better picture of the prices in different areas of Singapore, and which areas tended to have the lowest per square foot pricing. AMK Central was far from being the the cheapest zone despite being so far away from the town area.

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Inspired by a visit to a friend's house in Little India (an area that both me and George were extremely fond of) we began looking at the lowest price per square foot that could be had in the Jalan Besar District. And to our surprise, there was a unit on the market that seemed to fit all our criteria! It even seemed to overlook my old flat in Rowell Road!

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Source: Edgeprop Analytic Heatmap

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FUN FACT: Our transaction is reflected on this list (screenshot taken in May 2019), and yes we did get the best per square foot price for our size of flat. Singaporeans familiar with the square footage of flats here can probably easily guess which one was our transaction...

FUN FACT 2: The HDB flats on Kelantan lane average about 450 upwards psf to even 500+. As for Rowell Road, the road that I have the most emotional attachment to, it turns out it is the cheapest price per square foot in the whole Jalan Besar area. Well fancy that!...

Thanks Singaporeans with your racially suspect CMIO policies which has resulted in the Indian enclave near central becoming less popular with Chinese buyers - thus giving us (I'm classed as a Chinese buyer) a chance to find the most favourable price! Your loss is our gain!

What we chose: Little India with per square foot prices as low as SGD 420-440 psf

3. HDB Resale Flat Purchase Process

Buying Resale Flat Steps

Here is a record of our timeline. It took 5 months & 6 days (159 days, not including end day) from start to finish - calculated from the date we applied for the eligibility letter, to the date we completed the purchase.

20 April 2018 - Applied for HLE (HDB Loan Eligibility) Letter
27 April 2018 - Received HLE Approval (which will also tell you what is the max loan possible / what is your max budget)
18 May 2018 - Registered Intent to Buy
13 June 2018 - First viewing of the Rowell Flat
14 June 2018 - Second viewing of the Rowell Flat. Made offer.
15 June 2018 - Obtained Proof of Ownership from Owner.
25 June 2018 - Owner issues the OTP (Option to Purchase) Form
26 June 2018 - Request for Value Submitted
15 July 2018 - Exercise Option to Purchase (Seller completes portion of form)
16 July 2018 - Submission of Resale Application (Buyer completes portion of form)
20 August 2018 - Acknowledgement of Resale Documents (Confirmation of Purchase of Resale Flat, Housing Grant Agreement, Application of Housing Loan), Payment of Conveyancing and Caveat Fees. [Additional: in our case the seller wished to bring forward the date for Completion of Sale due to travel plans so we also arranged for an earlier date]
26 Sept 2018 - Completion of Sale at HDB Hub, Opening Utilities, SLA Caveat, Property Tax

* I wish to also add the note that when you go down to HDB Hub for the final completion, you don't really have to bring any other documents previously submitted, besides your original IDs. Its a formality in which buyer and seller just sign the final papers in each other's presence, the seller get a cute little HDB tote bag full of papers and HDB branded keychains and magnets and swag, and then you go off with the keys. Unfortunately, about 5 minutes before I was to leave the house to attend this momentous event, I became convinced that I needed to bring the original copy of some document that I couldn't recall whether it should be in my possession or the seller's possession. The result is that I tore through the house like a mad person tornado of flying papers (I realised later that the original was with the seller), and I went to HDB Hub in a nervous wreck - only to slowly realise that the completion was more a formality of signing and shaking hands and smiling at each other and receiving the keys... OH WELL NOW WE KNOW.

On hindsight, there are also three other VERY IMPORTANT things that you'll need to do as a new home owner (but no one is going to remind you to do these):

  • Conservancy Charges: Set up giro/direct debit for conservancy charges to the town council (you'll have to contact your town councils after 2 weeks, or in my case, if you forgot to contact them, they will send you a bill for your overdue conservancy charges ho ho ho)
  • Renovations: Start your house renovations so you can move into the flat! DUH. But because I was so busy with my PYT show and the 'accidental commencement of MAJOR LONG-TERM PROJECT #2' I admit that I was unusually slow to start the renovation process....

4. HIP Options

We were extraordinarily lucky in that the HIP timing coincided with the time we were purchasing the flat, meaning that I had taken ownership of the flat in time to make the decisions on what HIP options I wanted.

HIP stands for Home Improvement Programme (HIP), and HDB flats of a certain age are all slated for this programme in which their 30+ year old plumbings and toilets are replaced, spalling issues and leakages are fixed, and safety features like anti-slip coatings, handlebars and mobility ramps are installed for the elderly who need them - all for what is a mere token sum (if you are Singaporean the costs are almost negligible and can be paid through CPF in a few years time). You also get a new front door and front gate (optional Ease items)

The HIP contractor will erect a toilet showroom that looks like this masterpiece below (with a bow on the toilets), and you get to choose from a few inoffensive colour themes such as grey, blue, or sand...



The HIP works are usually accompanied by great upheaval in the block itself, with everyone taking advantage of the chaos to embark on their own noisy renovation projects as the HIP works sweep through the block for the duration of the better part of a year. I must admit that I subconsciously ended up delaying the renovation of our flat because of the knowledge that HIP was coming soon and it would have been ideal to move in after HIP had been completed for our flat, otherwise we would have to endure another round of having to trot down to the common toilets during the shock of the 10-day disruption.

5. HIP Works & Bathroom Fixtures

In Feb 2019 the HIP Works finally commenced! We received a one month advance notice letter and a two week advance notice letter before the date, and someone came around to check the condition of the flat before we started, and where they pointed out to us a few weird parts of our flats.


Seems like all the flats in the block have a slightly un-aligned kitchen toilet door. But no big deal... *TWITCHES*


Based on the option form given back in October 2018, they printed out the list of works to be done in the house. With the works commencing, we also had to ensure we had all the new fixtures present for them to install during the process. We visited all the usual megastores for bathroom fixtures in Singapore such as Bathroom Warehouse, Hoe Kee, Sim Siang Choon, but ultimately decided to try the smaller bathroom fixture stores on Geylang. After doing a price comparison with HomeOne and Universal Union, we eventually bought our fixtures from Heritage Bathroom Gallery (we were served by a lady called Irene Chong).

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As the sink and WC were provided by HIP, we just had to supply the rest of the basic fixtures found in a bathroom. Here is a breakdown of the unit prices for which we got our basic fixtures (after comparing at least 6 different shops):

  • Mirror Cabinet with Internal Shelving - $118 (we chose one that was big enough to hold an entire Listerine Bottle)
  • Instant Heater with Rain Shower, Standard Shower, and DC pump - $249
  • Foldable Towel Rack with additional hooks - $88 (we had seen similar units for over $100 elsewhere)
  • Two way Tap - $33 (we had seen the same unit sold elsewhere in Geylang for $45)
  • Hooks in a row - $42 (we had seen the same unit sold elsewhere in Geylang for $53)
  • Toilet Paper Holder - $28 (we had seen the same unit sold elsewhere in Geylang for $39)
  • Bidet Sprayer - $39

Other things we got separately from Ikea:

  • Glass shelf - $12.90 (We didn't fancy any of the designs we saw in the bathroom shops - too fancy! - and we wanted something even simpler. We also weren't sure if this was absolutely necessary, so we got a cheap backup one with an extremely simple design in case we changed our minds about not having a simple glass shelf)
  • Toilet Brush - $9.90 (Don't really need a fancy branded toilet brush considering that its something we'll use and replace over time!!!)

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HIP usually finishes within 10 days and the owner just has to be present on the 1st day, 9th day (when the fixtures go up), and last day (where the entire construction team will come up to take a congratulatory picture with you upon the completion of your brand new TOILETS.

In Part 2 of this post I will continue with how we figured out a budget, design layout, and the all important task of appointing a main renovation contractor!

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Last Meal: Hawker dishes in the future (The Substation, 29-30 March 2019)


The documentation of this project, "The Last Meal", comes a bit late - although perhaps a little fittingly because a number of food-related ailments seemingly kept me from being able to work at my maximum potential.

Earlier this year, I was fortuitously brought together with Chef Ming (of JAM at Siri House) - by The Substation - and thus began a collaboration to reinterpret local/hawker fare into a kind of anxiety-provoking menu. A disturbingly uncanny trip up and down and around memory lane! A speculative vision of our human weakness fondness for nostalgia meets hard future utilitarian compromises! An experimental work for the palate! It was truly an pleasure and honour to be able to work with Chef Ming who took it on with so much energy and so many ideas to take it further, especially the start of the project coinciding with a period of severe fatigue for me.

I had recently sought treatment (CBT/Exposure Therapy) for what has been a lifelong affliction of emetophobia (a completely debilitating fear of vomiting) and an unreasonable aversion to acidic or vinegary foods (a difficult thing to explain at times, because it can sound absurd to preemptively tell everyone "NO VINEGAR PLZ" in the off-chance that any unknown dish might have vinegar). And I had also seen an endocrinologist to ask if there was anything to explain my ridiculously tiny appetite and aversion to cold temperatures - and was subsequently diagnosed with hypothyroidism (so said all the tests, despite me being an extremely hyper person). And finally, the biggest factor of all that had triggered this intense self-examination was: pregnancy! SHOCK! HORROR! Yes folks, the Ding and South are unexpectedly multiplying (stay tuned for a documentation of this new long-term project), and this meant that for a period of time during the first trimester I developed an strong aversion to my favourite food of all - eggs! This was very hard to live down indeed, compounding all of my food anxieties despite my attempts to deal with them head-on like an adult by following up with all these medical investigations. So all of this was in the background as we began discussions for this food project....

The starting point for our conversation had been one of my past projects from a Healthcare Workshop with the Kyoto Institute of Design x Royal College of Art, whilst I was doing my MA at Design Interactions (RCA). In a way, that workshop's premise was already a bit like smashing two worlds together: you had that base of a historically practical and functional Japanese approach to researching and designing for elderly care (I remember our Japanese collaborator bringing to us these booklets of amazing innovative mobility aids and novel healthcare aids designed to assist in every aspect of elderly care) - meeting the provocative, parallel realities of a speculative future (as students from our Design Interactions programme used to call it, ahem, a more "DI" approach).

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Kyoto 2014: Kyoto D-lab held a Healthcare Futures Workshop centering on robotics in collaboration with the Design Interactions Course at the Royal College of Art - led by Professor Anthony Dunne and James Auger and D-lab’s Professor Julia Cassim.

Me, Calum Bowden, and Hiroko Narasaki worked on a project imagining a scenario where a robot was to prepare your "last meal", having collected a lifetime of data of your food preferences, being able to robotically prepare the food you wanted in a texture that you could consume despite all your age-related changes in chewing and swallowing physiology. We discussed the ways in which factors such as end-of-life, food preferences, and necessary food modifications could be determined, and surveyed Japanese people on a list of foods they liked most. (Obvs this was also borne from our common interests in eating lots of good food in japan and spending a long time in supermarkets and food halls looking at all the beautiful plastic foods and gorgeous food packagings...)


At the time we also thought that there might also be the issue where a meal is the sum of many parts and that people develop habits for eating certain foods together with others. But when we collect the data about the meal, the essential connections between unusual connections could also be broken - and odd pairings might be made. For example, in this case someone told us they loved foods such as Annin Tofu, Premium Niigata Rice, and Ashirari Decorations (to liven up the plating of her food). But in reality, no Japanese person would logically make a menu of Annin Tofu (Almond Jelly) together with Rice.

This was the starting point of the conversations we had to develop The Last Meal in Singapore, and to engage with a wider set of concerns facing the food industry in the near future (and specific to Singapore). Rather than to capture nostalgia in a perfectly rendered dish, the idea was to invoke the sense of the uncanny through subtle means. A twist of presentation, an unfamiliar texture, a physical constraint. The amount of alienation had to be right, and it was good that Ming kept us all on track by focusing on elements that would be universally recognisable by all Singaporeans.

One thing that was clear was that when we imagined someone eating these foods in a near-future post-apocalyptic bunker, the person in the bunker was very specifically us. A Singaporean, here in the present. It wasn't a baby from the future who hadn't had the chance to gain the lived experience of enjoying hawker food in the form that we eat right now. It wasn't someone from a foreign country being introduced to Singaporean hawker cuisine for the first time. It wasn't about exoticising or fetishising our nostalgia for hawker cuisine and 'heritage foods'. It was instead about transporting a Singaporean living in the present into a distant, uncertain food future where perhaps food security was an issue; where automation and efficiency was top priority to the extent of influencing hawker practices, where alternative proteins had become widely accepted in an era of land scarcity; where steady state foods would be commonplace backups; where a rapidly aging population would seek out enzyme softened versions of favourite foods to recapture the tastes of olde...

DONT BE SAD, HAVE YOUR LAST MEAL WITH US! Tickets selling fast. Join us on 29 & 30 March for an interactive art experience with a four-course dystopian take on local hawker fare, designed specially by chef Ming Tan (@maehng), in collaboration with visual artist and technologist Debbie Ding. SAD: The Last Meal addresses Singapore's obsession with nostalgia, by looking at the alleged death of the Singaporean hawker, and the anxiety around losing a facet of heritage that this country holds so dear—our local food culture. Our 7pm slots are nearly sold out, grab your tickets for the 9pm slot at Tickets are $35 per person. #thevanishing #citieschangepeopledie #subafterdark #hawkerculture #sgfood #singapore #nostalgicsg #heritagesg #nolstagicpanic

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Somehow this also needed to be rooted in reality, so we planned to shoot a series of audiovisual stimulation aids to excite (or confuse) the senses and stimulate (or deflate) the appetite. With the help of Cain and the sub team, we shot Ming in his kitchen at Siri House cooking up the originals of the dishes that were about to be reinterpreted (or as Ming likes to say, that we were about to try to knock off the pedestal...)





Although we had recorded sound on site in the kitchen, the original sound was not usable - it held the sound of a living kitchen with food being prepared and a restaurant during service. If I had used that original sound, it would feel like you were a disembodied spectator looking into some other space when you listened to the video like that. But I wanted the cooking to sound like it was actually happening right front in front of you. LIVE SOUNDS in whatever space you were in. So the sound had to be totally manufactured from scratch....

I suppose sound design for a video to be played back in an open space is always like putting on overly-dramatic stage makeup so that the details can also be seen under harsh stage lights and from a distance. So I did make some of the sounds very extreme and almost comedic. For example, for a bouncing fish cake, I decided to use some exaggerated bouncing balloon sounds that surprisingly seemed to work. And I cut up a lot of juicy leaves (actually they were leftover strawberry tops and stems) and swished about a lot of polymorph beads and mic-ed everything up painfully closely to get the most goosebump inducing foley sound.

I was inspired by the foley sound I had heard on the documentary Fruit Hunters and a show about Chaoshan cuisine that has been on Netflix recently, Flavourful Origins. And I guess you could say I made it all in the spirit of ASMR videos.

These were to be screened in front of the audience as they ate the new reinterpretations of dishes... I am a little shy about showing the final mix in isolation online because it truly was a bit over-the-top (I also have to confess that I did some of the final edits in the controlled access machine room with two operational laser cutters and their giant extractor fans whirring noisily in the background so my working conditions were also less than ideal) but I might make a trailer mix when I have more time over the weekend.


Some pictures behind the scenes...


Chef Ming peeks through the curtain to see what guests we have for the night


Chicken Rice in Kueh Form


Chef Ron doles out the secret sauce (cucumber)



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Retextured Carrot Cake, first lovingly batch-cooked in a wok with two different varieties of chai por, then brutally blended so to allow it to be hygienically and efficiently reheated in retort pouches; all to be squeezed directly (or sucked up) into the mouths of the audiences.


Laksa in a dried form, vacuum packed for longevity and easy long term storage.



A special Laksa rempah coating the puffed rice, ready to be rehydrated at a moment's notice to produce a seriously authentic tasting laksa soup.

Now that I am writing out this post I realised I forgot to take a picture of dessert - the tau huay!

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All of the production of this food was entirely undertaken by the amazing Chef Ming (and his assistant Chef Ron), who are both extremely knowledgeable and superbly skilled and inventive with the food they prepare. The actual realisation of this project completely wouldn't have been possible without Ming's professional and gastronomical expertise and his willingness to do something quite so daring with the food. For most chefs would rather make a pleasing menu, rather than one that draws gasps of shock from an audience; a menu that manages to bring the audience to relook their food with a critical eye. I am not qualified to cook the food and serve it to a public audience for I have not the required basic food hygiene training accreditation to do so, nor do I know the intricacies of how to organise or run a service! My role in collaboration felt much smaller; because ALL the props has to go to Ming's efforts and hard work to make this experience a reality! I only provided the idea and brain fodder for the project, but all of the amazing food (and food innovation work!) was the Chef's work! It was really my honour to be able to work with Ming.

Countless thanks must also go to The Substation: Annabelle and Si Min for facilitating the entire process and helping to take care of all of the small details, as well as all of the Substation staff (and interns Ariel and Celine) for all their help. Without the help of so many people this wouldn't have been possible!

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Some highly observant audience members asked me on the night why there wasn't ice kachang and nasi lemak on the menu. I was puzzled about the specificity of this question until I realised that they were referring to the image they had seen on the promotional material drawn by the designer, which ended up being printed in an unexpectedly huge size and mounted on the wall on the night of the event. Well, the answer is that at an earlier stage the shortlisted dishes originally included ice kachang and chicken rice so that was drawn into the flyer. However, the chicken rice was in a pyramid shape that could have been easily interpreted as the pyramid of a nasi lemak as well. Well spotted y'all.


In case you were wondering yes to the credit of the designer the portraits did have a rather uncanny likeness...

In the Press...

Plural Mag - The Hunger Games
The Peak Magazine - SAD: The Last Meal art exhibition serves up dystopian versions of beloved hawker dishes
SG Magazine - This is how local chef Ming Tan interprets dystopian hawker cuisine
CNA Lifestyle - Kitchen Stories: Fighting insecurity and emotions to prove himself to older chefs