Tiger Beat: Happy Family

The lanterns for this year’s Chinese New Year light-up in Chinatown is about the alpha male and his family. Endearing, even when it reminds us of some scary beasts in a ’70s theme park along Pasir Panjang Road

When the Chinese-style lanterns in the shape of tigers (虎) were lit this evening, a throng had gathered outside Chinatown Point to take photographs of them. In real life, tigers are the largest living cat species known. On the road divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road, the tigers appeared to be live-sized. They struck an imposing figure. Most of the spectators across the intersection were pointing the camera on their smartphone at the subject; some were more seriously equipped—with DSLRs and tripods. The silent tigers were a clear draw, like those in a zoo. However, a woman, not snapping, was heard saying, “一点都不可爱 (yi dian dou bu ke ai, not cute at all).”

Unlike in Japan, we have never placed a premium on cuteness. We do not have or enjoy a culture of kawaii—where in the land of Pokémon, is itself a pop culture phenomenon. Through the years, the light-ups in Chinatown have banked mostly on a conventional Chinese aesthetic that borders on the run-of-the-mill. It has not been an interpretive depiction that conveys a sense of the adorable. Better be zhun (准, accurate) than cute. In their seriousness to be culturally on-the-dot (although not specifically appealing to any elite currency), the organisers of the Chinatown light-ups have frequently drawn criticism for their aesthetic faux pas, such as the manly and pregnant moon goddesses during the Mid-Autumn Festivals.

Before the LED lights did their controlled magic, the tigers looked— from a distance—grey, stony, and somewhat menacing, even when the adult beasts were standing on clouds and the brood frolicking with a gold coin and an ingot. In the light of an overcast day, the trigonal set-up was rather evocative of those hellish dioramas in Haw Par Villa (虎豹別墅, aka Tiger Balm Gardens) of the ’70s, then a major local attraction (without the influence of a pandemic) and now considered a cultural heritage. As dusk approached, the shadowy creatures looked the antithesis of an approaching festive season.

There are five tigers in the main display. We wondered if the quintet is to show the size of a family that is now encouraged in view of our shrinking population. Or, to match the number of people allowed in social interactions or to dine out. Could it also be to denote the five elements in Chinese philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Come 1 February, we will be welcoming the year of the water tiger (and so that you are not mistaken, blue ripples underscore the scenes of posing and prancing tigers along Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road). As soft as that sounds, the tiger of the Chinese Zodiac is a symbol of strength and confidence. The water tiger is not a tamed beast; it is believed to possess a self-esteem that is considered strong. Perhaps, that is why the organisers of the Chinatown light-up have avoided cute?

But soft is the pull elsewhere in Chinatown. Away from the light-up, inside the shopping streets, large quantities of bulaohu (布老虎 or stuffed cloth tiger) are available in many gift shops and those offering CNY decorations in staggering bulk. These made-in-China toys bear a cute countenance, compared to those now populating the main street outside People’s Park Complex. The bulaohu is a traditional folk handicraft that has been made and used in China since ancient times. Aesthetically, these seen in Chinatown may look different from those of the past, but its feline form is unmistakable, and is deliberately simplified to trot out its facial adorableness, and that grin!

The tiger, placed third in the Chinese Zodiac, was both worshipped and feared in ancient China. Known as bai shou zhi wang (百兽之王, king of beasts), it was also considered to be efficient in warding off the three domestic disasters of more rural times: fire, burglars, and evil spirits. But in the pandemic era of an urban world, the fierceness and courageousness of the tiger are somewhat played down. From tiger buns at Ikea to T-shirts emblazoned with “Gucci Tiger”, the king of beasts is not quite kingly, and is taking on a decidedly less ferocious role. Do they even roar anymore?

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

KAWS:Holiday Singapore. Open!

Ordered to close on Saturday, the giant sculpture Companion is now viewable, up close

It is a sunny day, unlike most of the past two weeks. The sky is adequately clear, with wispy swirling clouds overwhelming the shy blue and the reserved sun. Way below, on the rectangular grass platform that is The Float @ Marina Bay, a very still KAWS sculpture, Companion, holding a smaller version himself, is lying on his back, seemingly enjoying the happy heavens. He and his charge are sun-bathing, taking up a substantial space on which the National Day parade is often staged, surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate on our island. Whether he knows what has happened these past four days, he isn’t letting on. The drama that unfolded last Saturday has ended, for now. The gloom cast over the anthropomorphic inflatable has lifted. The sunshine is a heavenly thumbs up.

Lying there for anyone who cares to see him IRL, Companion the colossus has brought the company of a rather curious case of alleged “breach of intellectual intellectual property rights and misuse of confidential information”. Last Saturday, during the unveiling and preview to special guests, the exhibition, officially named KAWS:Holiday Singapore, had to close. The organiser of the event AllRightsReserve (ARR), a Hong Kong company (described as a “creative studio” on their website), was served with a court order to immediately suspend the by-then-hyped-to-the-max solo exhibition of the artwork. According to a CNA report that afternoon, “an interim injunction” that Singaporean arts promoter The Ryan Foundation (TRF), applied for was granted in time. “It orders that the exhibition stop taking place, as it is in breach of the foundation’s intellectual property rights and confidentiality”. It was all rather vague, which unsurprisingly led to online speculations, as many waiting to go were disappointed that it would be a missed opportunity.

The timing of the injunction, for many, was rather odd. Some even thought it rather impertinent. Why on our scorched earth choose the launch day? The dramatic potential could not be dismissed. When it was revealed that there was an earlier failed negotiation that began in 2019 between ARR and TRF to bring KAWS:Holiday here, some suggested that the halting of the display was a “revenge” move, beautifully planned to gain maximum exposure. Did ARR do something sneaky to TRF, even if the former partnered with the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to let Companion lie here in the sun for eight days? Was it payback time? Or, as many Netizens suggest, “a case of sour grapes”? One of the earliest to report on the halt was South China Morning Post (SCMP). It stated that “a large group of VIPs in Singapore were attending the official unveiling… but at 4.30, a court injunction ordering both the immediate suspension of the artwork’s display and the accompanying sale of merchandise was delivered to the event’s Hong Kong organisers” at the very site. In attendance was the American artist of the sculpture Brian Donnelly. SCMP added, “all this attention would be enough to give any public artwork an inflated sense of its own importance”.

And attention was inevitably cast on The Ryan Foundation too. Until then, few outside the business of art have heard of the non-profit. “Similai?” was repeatedly posed on social media. A YouTube video of a CNA interview of its founder Ryan Su started circulating. In a follow-up report yesterday, CNA wrote that TRF promotes “arts awareness in Singapore”, and that it was established nine years ago by Mr Su, “a lawyer and prominent art collector, who had studied Art Law in the UK. Mr Su is known for his art exhibitions” and, according to online publication High Net Worth (HNW), “no one holds an art exhibition like Ryan Su”. It began with 2016’s Andy Warhol: Social Circles at the Gillman Barracks, which reportedly saw over 2,000 visitors on opening night. The last exhibition in 2019, Unhomed Belongings, featured the works of American actress Lucy Liu and Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao. Mr Su was bestowed Patron of the Arts Award in 2017 by the National Arts Council. Two years later, he sat on the Asian Art Circle of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York.

On TRF’s birth in 2012, Mr Su told HNA, “I started it as a joke. I said, let’s donate $10 to something and just call it The Ryan Foundation, instead of all the art in the warehouse. We weren’t serious”. “We” include partner Adrian Chan, who is also the director of TRF. The “joke” turned into an entity that contributed noticeably to the art calendar of our city. But, following the stunning injunction, stories emerged of the unconventional working methods of the foundation, even as far as Kuala Lumpur, where the Andy Warhol exhibition travelled to after its SG debut eight months later. Those with less than desirable experiences with TRF are saying how not surprised they are by the way things turned out for the exhibition on The Float. Which makes the KAWS:Holiday stop here more notable since the travelling display has been to at least five other countries prior, without a hitch.

In an introduction on the Court for Arbitration website, Mr Su is described as “a mediator and arbitrator… a specialist in disputes involving galleries, artists, dealers, exhibitions… (in a list of more than 30 items)”. Curiosity was piqued: why did he not apply his many skills to his dealings with ARR? Was there no mediation before going to court? Yesterday, Mr Donnelly posted on Instagram Stories, “Ryan Su talk to us! Why did you do this lame action?” In a statement quoted by the media here, TRF said that the interim injunction was a “temporary court remedy”. What it was remedying, it did not say. But, according to Mr Chan, the spotlight isn’t just on TRF, it is also on the community of the self-employed. “This long case that will be fought for all freelancers and creatives whose ideas and pitches and work has been stolen or used without authorisation,” he maintained. It is not clear how long TRF intended to go with the matter. But, as announced yesterday evening, a court has lifted the injunction and TRF was ordered to pay the legal costs.

With KAWS:Holiday Singapore now allowed to open, ARR has said in a statement to the media: “The court further ordered that there will also be an inquiry into the damages sustained by AllRightsReserved by reason of the injunction.” It appears that we may not have heard the end of the case. ARR added that “When our exhibition at The Float @ Marina Bay was forced to shut its doors, we felt wronged and frustrated… This is not what our company, or the world, would like to see.” While the decision to halt the access of the display is reversed, some observers wondered how the entire episode involving an exhibition that has garnered international publicity would impact our city as a venue for large-scale installations or, indeed, any promotion of the arts, or the arts awareness that TRF is keen to advocate. Who, in the end, really gains?

Ironically, the news has aroused tremendous public interest in the project. It is an hour before the 2pm opening. Many passers-by and cyclists are converging on the Raffles Avenue side of The Float, taking snapshots of the companionable 42-metre long installation, as well as wefies with the inanimate object. According to AccuWeather, the temperature is 32℃ and humidity 95%. There is no breeze. It would take some fortitude to bear with the searing heat. Yet, behind the barrier that surrounds one side of The Float, under no shelter nor shade, the KAWS sculpture has lured the young and the old, locals and foreigners, fans (at least two wearing the KAWS X Uniqlo tee) and the simply-there. The gathering seems to meet what Mr Connelly had hoped for: “to give more people access to art” and to allow the installation to be “a door to inclusiveness”. Across the sea, on the Helix bridge, a man has set a drone, ready to take an areal view of the exhibit. The small flying machine eventually takes off, its small body soon becomes too tiny to see from a distance. But Companion and his small self, held close to the bosom of the larger are totally visible and occupy a large part of the platform. Amazing how a sole object can make you forget, for a moment, that The Float does, in fact, accommodate all the participants of the National Day parade.

KAWS:Holiday Singapore opens daily from 2pm to 9pm, until 21 November. Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Tokyo Olympics: Did Toymaker Mattel Forget It Took Place in Asia?

In their special-edition Barbie dolls, Mattel included a Black plastic lass, but not an Asian

Is it possible that the more inclusive one tries to be, the more likely one would also exclude? US toymaker Mattel recently revealed their latest special-edition Barbie dolls, released to commemorate the just-concluded Olympic Games. They are supposed to be ethnically diverse, but an Asian is clearly not represented among the smiling quintet. There are two blonde Whites, and a brunette, one Black, and one possibly Latino, but not one face that could stand for Asia, which, according to World Population Review, is the most populous continent in the world (and, as any school child knows, the largest), with a current total of 4.7 billion people (China and India represent 1.37 billion and 1.29 billion respectively). How is that not large enough for Mattel to consider crucial for representation?

On 29 July, Mattel shared a tweet to tout its range of sporty Barbie dolls with fashion, smiles, and medals that were supposed to reflect “the fun and friendship to the season”. It seems that an Asian face has no part in the fun and friendship. Twittersphere took note and hit out. Mattel quickly responded with an official statement released to the media. They admitted that they “fell short” in not including an Asian Barbie among the line-up that is supposed to celebrate the Tokyo Games. Despite that admission, the irony that Asian representation is missing to mark an Olympics staged in Asia is not at all lost. Adding to the deep dismay that an American company could fall so short is that one of the stars of Team USA at this year’s Games is Susina Lee, the first Hmong-American to represent the Stars and Stripes, and winning a gold in the gymnastics individual all-round.

To be sure, Mattel has been more woke than other toymakers and has released Asian dolls in the past, including male ones, in particular the wildly successful BTS dolls (which reportedly raised the company’s worldwide sales by 10 percent). But, for an Olympics edition toy that is supposed to reflect the global nature and representation of the Games, the maker of the 61-year-old Barbie appears not to be able to cast its sight beyond its own Whites-are-more shores, even when they outfitted one of the blondes in what appears to be the karate uniform gi. In that fateful Tweet, Mattel added the hashtag #YouCanBeAnything. Except, perhaps, Asian?

Photo: Mattel/Twitter

“If You Want A Pair, You Have To Buy Two”

From the look of the box, you’d never guess, there’s only one shoe inside

By Shu Xie

The cheerful salesperson at the Lego store was very quick to tell me, even before I could complete my question, that there is only one shoe in the box with the flip-up lid, not a pair. Frankly, I didn’t know that. I have never bought a single shoe before, nor do I know that shoes are sold singly! The recognisable blue boxes—stacked on the floor, as you might find in a shoe shop—certainly look like the regular ones: there is room in each for two. As if to placate my disappointment, she added helpfully, “you can choose right or left side”. Choose? They come as right or left? “No, but you can fix it as a right shoe or left.” Such thoughtful option! But when I looked at the built-up sneaker, placed on top of a shoe box in the acrylic showcase, I couldn’t tell if it was the left or the right (there is apparently a separate bag with the right parts for you to get the side you want). Despite the “real shoelaces” that Lego proudly announced, it appeared as it was—unwearable.

The Lego Adidas Originals Superstar is the toy maker’s first sneaker that is built with their plastic bricks, and conceived for adults. Adidas and Lego have collaborated before. There were shoes and even clothing (for kids, if I remember correctly), but never has there been the toy footwear. Like most of their special-edition items, Lego’s take on the Superstar is for display only. It is massive for a toy shoe—at least men’s size 15, I thought! But since it’s 27-centimetres in length, they are really a very common US size 9 (UK 8 or Euro 42.5), which would sit nicely on top of a book case. It comes with all the logos and trademarks to make it look “authentic”. And, you can even customise it with whatever bricks you already have so that they do not need to look monochromatic. It also comes with a clear stand so that you can prop up the heel (as seen in the photo above). A small plaque with description is also issued, so that the less informed will not mistake it for a Stan Smith!

At S$149.90, the one-sided Lego Adidas Originals Superstar (with a total of 731 pieces) is actually more expensive than the wearable version. I didn’t think it would be, but it is. At the Foot Locker, the regular Superstar in the same colour combination can be bought for S$139. An enticing bargain? But, soon to be released is a very real iteration of the Lego-fied Superstar—in a synthetic upper, but with no buildable parts. The Adidas Superstar X Lego costs S$200, or S$100 a side. A replica of a replica! And a price to match, but still cheaper than its plastic cousin!

The Lego Adidas Originals Superstar, SGD149.90, is available at Lego stores. Photo: Chin Boh Kay/SOTD

Plushie For Posterity

A comic artist made a little toy in the likeness of one MBS woman. This could be the best-seller of a pandemic year, but it seems it isn’t for sale

It’s heartening to know that there are those who do not shine a light on the bad side of people. Although the now-famous “MBS woman” is (still) derided by Netizens for her refusal to wear a mask in public, repeatedly, and has been sent to court for the violation (to which she is asking the charges to be dropped), she is now depicted as a somewhat harmless mini-plushie, with the sweetness of Ang Ku Kueh Girl. The unknown comic artist, who goes by the handle Toast Comics, has made the recalcitrant no-masker—in what appears to be felt (but not Louis Vuitton’s ‘eco felt’)—approachable, likeable and squeezable, something you might like hanging from the corner of your bag. And there’s no mistaking her—she comes with a hang tag that is printed with her famous and quotable retort, “Do you have a badge?”

Toast Comics, despite his anonymity (his gender is known!), is a rather buzzy artist online. He has 6.1k followers on Facebook, which makes him a ‘nano’ influencer. He is known to beef-up ordinary-looking guys to give them near-superhero stature, if not status. He famously buffed up the Kopitiam Uncle mascot, complete with a new singlet that sports a gaping armhole, so large, it opens to the hip, calling the makeover the “sexy version”. He did the same to the Singapore Police Force’s avatar, Inspector Clif, reimagined as a strapping officer with muscles too big for his uniform. Even Workers’ Party’s Jamus Lim isn’t spared: his cartoon-self is a bare-chested, hammer-wielding, cockle-loving stud-politician! In fact, Toast Comics—also “a place where there is no such thing as ‘safe spaces’”—is the more PG-version of the artist’s true talent and obsession: drawing Asian men with the bodies of Greek gods, some with little left to the imagination. As his other alter ego Toastwire, he populates his illustrated world with men of extreme musculature and endowments, all against settings of fantastical colour, rather Gengoroh Tagame meets Tom of Finland meets Pierre et Gilles.

In contrast, MBS-woman-as-toy/caricature is all cuddly-adorable. As one FB follower said, “way too cute” (while others wonder if it’s a voodoo doll!). She is, of course, not anatomically correct, but her Mochi Peach Cat face is similar and her hair is especially spot on. Her recognisable Klein-blue shirt is precise, too, but at MBS that fateful afternoon, she wore knee-length bermudas. Toast Comics has graciously made her more feminine by dressing her in a skirt (admittedly, miniature shorts are harder to make). We’re surprised that he didn’t give her the physique of Joan Liew the bodybuilder!

Photo: Toast Comics/Facebook