Editor’s Note: I have the pleasure today to feature Qi Xuan’s illustrated children’s book on “Traditional Toy Making”. A student at the School of Art, Design and Media at the Nanyang Technological University,  Qi Xuan approached us for an interview opportunity as part of her research on traditional games in Singapore. We hooked her up with Rosie Wee, one of our Memory Corps volunteers, and the outcome is this wonderful children’s book on old games. Download the e-book and relive your childhood in this school holiday season!

Yeong Chong (YC): Reading your online presentation of self via Culturepush, Obscured.sg and your own “ About” page, it appears to me that illustration had not been a natural choice as an artistic outlet for you. How did you eventually decide on becoming an illustrator?

Qi Xuan (QX) I never knew I wanted to be an illustrator as I was growing up (I think most people don’t). But as I went through primary and secondary school, I realized my DNA was missing the chromosomes for solving math, so I ended up with the paintbrush. I was trained in fine arts for a few years before deciding on taking a degree in Visual Communications.

So constantly, I am fighting the designer VS. artist battle. I always tell myself that I have to experiment and discover things while I am still schooling. Being pretty impulsive (and inquisitive) by nature, I jump into things that excite me easily so every once in a while, I want to do something different. Illustration is something that really stays with me, and something that I find joy in. It is a nice fusion of Art and Design; being able to convey messages to a wide audience, yet having a huge room for expression and individuality. Hence, I find myself gravitating back to illustration. I find it my most expressive outlet and almost like an artistic anchor.

YC: Your modalities of inspiration are rather introspective and nostalgic, having cited your mother as a key motivator, your grandma as the first stimulus for you to start drawing and also notable classic children’s books as artistic inspirations. How much of your biography do you see being portrayed in some of your past works, and what are the themes that continue to fascinate you?

QX: My mom is an extremely creative woman who ensured I have the chance to pursue what I am passionate about. I had one of those typical Singaporean-childhoods when off-school days are stacked with tuition and enrichment classes. Of course there are perks here and there, but I was a very nerdy child. Strangely, I feel that this really helped me to grow creatively, because I spent so much time hoping and dreaming to outgrow my books. I think most of my works are somewhat inspired by the younger me, rather than the current, the more imaginative, curious, hopeful child that lives.

“I always feel that while food is what keeps people functioning, it is intangible things like memories that keep us alive and define us as individuals.”

I am drawn towards portraying memories of childhood; not just mine, but collected memories, dreams and thoughts of people. I always feel that while food is what keeps people functioning, it is intangible things like memories that keep us alive and define us as individuals. They fascinate me endlessly because it differs from people to people, and yet is a theme so universal and relatable.

YC: The work we are featuring today was borne out of your incidental discovery of a memory on the forgotten play time of paper dolls. You later interviewed one of our Memory Corps volunteer Rosie Wee to gather more material. Did you use to play with paper dolls too, and what are your motivations for creating such a book, which reminds me somewhat of an “instructional manual of lost games”?

QX: As a girl with an older brother, I never really owned any girly toys other than a few stuffed animals. I really envied girls with barbie dolls and miniature houses, and I knew the best way to own something close was to make them myself. I grew up sketching in exercise books and making things out of cardboard. There were paper dolls, animals and houses too flimsy to stand. They were really sad replicas of the real things but I remembered being quite proud of them.

The main motivation for this book is, in essence, to capture the fading traditional games in Singapore and to raise awareness on them. This book is mainly targeted for today’s Singaporean children who might not even know half the games in this book. I think these traditional games are a crucial part of our nation’s identity and culture, and it will be a great waste to let them go just because times have changed.

“I wanted to capture the time when children could make things and games out of nothing, creating stories with nothing but simple resources and a vivid imagination. Children with their factory-made toys today hardly get to experience that.”

What steered me further into this project was not only the beauty of paper dolls and the wealth of imagination behind it, but also how rapidly is childhood changing today. This is especially clear in tech-savvy Singapore, where children are easily spotted with an electronic gadget more than anything else. Although I think technology is a blessing, it is still important that children should not be always spoon-fed with information and images so conveniently.

I wanted to capture the time when children could make things and games out of nothing, creating stories with nothing but simple resources and a vivid imagination. Children with their factory-made toys today hardly get to experience that. Hence this book is not only to inform today’s children about traditional toys, but also to emphasize the fulfillment in making their own.

YC: How was it like speaking with Rosie, our Memory Corps  volunteer? How were concepts of “play” different for the both of you during the discussion? And how different would “play” be for the next generation of Singaporeans?

QX: Rosie is wonderful, a joy to talk to and she helped me so much for my project. I approached her with some research done, but yet, there was so much she told me that I have not heard of before. I was born into the age of gameboys and tamagotchis, which was considered advanced in comparison to the games played during Rosie’s times, hence many things she shared (such as the array of games you can play with just a few saga seeds) fascinated me. I find it strange that such simple games can sustain the interest of children in the past, and this is the same kind of puzzlement I received from today’s children as I taught them how the five stones are played.

Rosie is open-minded about the changing childhoods in Singapore, but so, still feeling a pinch of pity that the children today are unable to relish a simple, carefree childhood not built on a pixel screen. She taught me many important things that day, saying that changing ideas of childhood are things we are unable to change. Like the boiling of an egg, a lifestyle built on rapid technological growth and change is irreversible.

“Everyone is responsible for keeping our traditions, cultures and heritage alive.”

Nobody can change the fact that today’s definition of play revolves around touch screens and control buttons, and the future might get even more so. Rosie and I agreed; there is nothing wrong with electronic games and overtly-addictive iphone applications, but children should take time to play outdoors and make something with their hands. Children adapt to the new readily, but need coaxing to appreciate the old and traditional. In a forward-looking country like Singapore, one that is constantly changing, this might be a challenge, but not entirely impossible.

In short, everyone is responsible for keeping our traditions, cultures and heritage alive.


Image Credits: Lim Qi Xuan

Special thanks to Qi Xuan for sharing your book with the fans of the Singapore Memory Project! Watch out for more fun and games as we celebrate June as the month of play this school holiday!

Your resident do-gooder

Yeong Chong
Editor, irememberSG
Singapore Memory Project

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