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We scavenge and curate homegrown works from aspiring artists and dreamers alike.

Building Memories


Building Memories

Deborah Loh

Featuring Lee Xin Li




HOW MANY OF YOU remember the times we've spent hunched over a book during “reading period” in the school hall?

While most of us pretended to read, or took the chance to take a catnap, Lee Xin Li spent those pockets of time scouring through his sister’s history textbook, committing the details of China’s history and the events of World War 2 to memory. 


Xin Li relates to stories about the past with much enthusiasm. He speaks about old places and buildings with much intricacy and resconstructs old places and buildings into graphical forms based on his personal memories, or uncovered information. The final-year Architecture student at National University of Singapore (NUS) takes the opportunity to sketch whenever he has an idle moment. His sketchbook and graphical tablet have been his permanent companions for the simple reason that they are practical one-off investments, unlike other art materials that have to be constantly replenished.


Even when he enlisted for national service, Xin Li kept his sketchbooks by his side. Drawing was the best way to visually document the events in camp, given the strict rules against image capturing during his days. At the end of his service, he had completed a series of sketchbooks, which would serve as material for Tekong Journal, a work still in progress. 

Xin Li shares that a large portion of the pictorial journal is based on his personal experiences and that of his fellow army kakis, while the remaining of it covers some of Pulau Tekong’s strange happenings (ghost stories included). 

His Burma journal has a mix of his take on Burma and the history of burma, so his work stands out.

Inspired by Guy Delisle, the Canadian cartoonist of bestselling graphic novels Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Burma Chronicles, Xin Li aims to show, rather than tell his experiences to readers, and at the same time, give them a little more insight on the history of places. 

His other inspirations include the creator of Doraemon Fujiko Fujio, Georges Prosper Remi (pen name Hergé) the man behind The Adventures to Tintin, and Matt jones, one of Pixar’s story artists. 


What I admire and like about these animators is that they can draw a character so consistently. They capture the essence so well. A few strokes and the character is there; you know who it is. Their observation power is very amazing.



Xin Li says that out of all the art movements, he reckons that his style would fit in well with the 19th-century Impressionists. While his technique might be significantly different, he feels that he shares the same philosophy as a lot of artists that come from that era. He does not seek to achieve perfection but to capture the essence of the moment. Most of his works are done out of self-expression; a random trigger launches him into a spontaneous spur that inspires creation. 

It’s meaningful because my mum and aunt used to sell soft drinks, chicken rice and hokkien mee at the coffeeshop. My siblings and I would play around the playground.

Besides the Tekong Journal, Xin Li feels particularly strongly for an illustration depicting one of Singapore’s abandoned HDB housing estates, Neo Tiew estate. A place once bustling with activity has become a bare skeleton void of life, infested with horror stories. 

Definitely a far cry from the estate that Xin Li imagine would look like if it were still inhabited (above), but a place that will always trigger fond childhood memories.





Xin Li’s recent illustration, Kueh, has been a big hit, receiving more than 96,000 views. The popularity of that piece came as a big surprise even for the 25-year old, although he knew that some of his friends who were on overseas exchange would definitely be hit by a wave of homesickness upon seeing these familiar delicacies. He acknowledges that kueh is a multicultural snack that is viewed differently from people with varying backgrounds, and appreciates this diversity of perspectives.

Expectedly, some people will say this (particular) kueh is not nonya, or not supposed to be spelt this way. What you draw is something they find meaningful and they want to defend it. Because if you draw something that is not meaningful, people won’t bother about it.




If I could only use one word to describe Xin Li, that word would be relentless. He recounts, with zest, how he scanned through photos on Picasa, blogs and other archival materials to find out what the original Goldleaf taiwanese porridge restaurant looked like and reconstructed the building based on his extensive research. Upon showing the reconstructed picture of the building to the restaurant owners, he was rewarded with happy smiles tinted with nostalgia.  

These are meaningful things that allow people to trace back to their roots. My work is slightly different from others because it tends to give an identity back to people. In this context of a changing Singapore, it means a lot. It’s something that interests me and I’ve been doing it.

Hop over to Xin Li's Facebook page for a trip down memory lane and rediscover Singapore.


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