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).
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.
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.
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.
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.