Jeffrey Koh is well known in the local toy scene, maybe even in the world, for his extensive collection of toys. His Instagram account is a visual archive of the man’s seemingly endless line-up of figurines, statues and pop culture accoutrements.

Just before COVID hit, Koh had mentioned that he managed to clean up the front space at his office. “I was so happy. But during COVID, when staff couldn’t come into the office, I filled it up with boxes and stocks. It bugs the [crap] out of me every day I come into the office because I really wanted to clear that area and run, like, a little guerrilla pop-up.”

He’s not kidding. In fact, in our humble opinion, it might even be an understatement. Step into his foyer and you’re met with brown cardboard boxes, stacked floor-to-ceiling, to your right. To your left, are a hint of what he has—his toys, all black, arranged like tiny idols. You’ll have to leave your shoes at the front and enter through the narrow path into his main office where more of his toys are kept. Many of them loose from their packaging, some, still in their boxes. It’s a hoarder’s dream and a relative-of-said-hoarder-who-is-crushed-under-felled-boxes’ nightmare.

Almost every bit of nook and cranny of his office is taken up by a figurine or a pop culture artefact. So mountainous is his trove that you’d fail to notice his staff at their desk if it weren’t for the sounds of mouse and keyboard clicks.

1. BOBA FETT (2014)

“In the early ’80s, my dad’s friend from Malaysia bought a 12-inch Boba Fett toy. Boba Fett was this super cool guy, so badass and then he had such a lame death [in Return of the Jedi]. I did this piece with Luke [Chueh], which was based on his artwork. It was a brilliant idea. He knows that I’m crazy about Boba Fett so when he came to Singapore, he asked if I’d be interested in making the toy. I immediately jumped at it. To date, we’ve done seven colourways; all sold out. We could put out different colourways every year but money was never the aim. When we do a colourway, it has to feel right.”

2. ABOVE: STAR WARS “BOBA FETT" CARDBACK PROTOTYPE 47A (1981)

“I was on a lot of the Star Wars bulletin boards and there was this guy who posted pictures of packaging prototypes that he found in a dumpster outside the Kenner offices in Ohio. I had to sell some stuff to buy [this prototype cardback]. Think I paid a lot for it and I believe it to be one of a kind. At least, I haven’t seen any replication of this prototype till now.”

BELOW: STAR WARS “3 NEW ACTION FIGURES” SHELF WOBBLER (1978)

“It was known to be rare in the 90s. One day, I saw it being auctioned on eBay. Nobody really knew what it was during that time. I put in a bid and got it for a steal. To others, it’s just a piece of plastic but this is one of the rarer display pieces from that era and in that condition, it can go for up to USD2,000. It’s not a lot of money but finding this online and getting it for a reasonable price… that’s the thrill.”

Here’s the kicker: despite the cornucopia that we have witnessed here, he still has a storage space where more toys are stored. “I just keep running out of storage space,” Koh says. “I’m considering renting a small warehouse. Maybe about 500 square feet.”

It’s a constant struggle, he tells us. Something that many collectors will contend with. The overflow of material joy and the scarcity of space. This will be Koh’s bugbear but he has always lived for the moment; that’s why he collects.

In a way, Koh opines, collecting for him is most collectors’ raison d’etre: reliving their childhood; buying stuff that they didn’t have back then. Nostalgia: it's a hell of a drug.

“It’s never about having the biggest collection in Singapore. I’m just lucky to have a space and the means to buy these toys.”

While it feels like there’s no rhyme nor reason to his purchases, Koh boils it down to “stuff that catches his fancy”. Regret never comes into play. “It sounds a little snobbish to say but I’ve never cared about the investment value of the toys I get,” Koh says. “People ask what my favourite toy is and I’d answer that it’s the one I haven’t bought. Just buy whatever makes you happy.”

And that joy of acquisition, perhaps is collecting at its purest. He still keeps the boxes the toys come in but not because the packaging has more value if he resells his toys, rather he rotates out the toys that are displayed for the ones in the boxes. “Without the boxes, it’ll be difficult to store them.”

He adds that people, with the intention to resell the toys, often will not make much profit. “Here’s the thing with Star Wars... the toys from the ’70s or ’80s fetch a lot of money on the reseller markers as not many people bought them at the time. When Hasbro [the American toy company] released ‘The Power of the Force’ line, people started hoarding them but now they can’t sell them for five bucks.”

3. PAPA (2013)

“We were making stuff on Lee Kuan Yew’s likeness way before he died. We did one with Budi Nugroho and the idea is that LKY is dispensing advice like candy; each piece has a quote he made over the years. So, we put his head on Pez candy dispensers. All of us like sweets but too many are bad for our health. It’s the idea of taking things in moderation.”

4. FRANK KOZIK’S MECHANANA BRONZE (2009)

“Kozik is a visionary. Way ahead of his time. I wouldn’t put myself at his level but I do see some similarities between the two of us in that we don’t care what other people think. But, I think, he’s actually very kind. I’ve seen his softer side. The idea of a soft fruit being translated into something hard with rivets appealed to me. It’s punk. I bought this piece from Kozik’s wife.”

Koh points to a moment when he had a chance to purchase a rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype. The action figure prototype was shown at the New York Toy Fair in 1979 but it was never mass-produced due to concerns that the missile was a safety hazard to children. There was a chance to buy it for USD7,000. “But I was in my early 20s and that amount at that age was too much for me,” Koh adds, “a graded version went for USD200K.”

He puts out his own toys as well under the arm of FLABSLAB, the acronym for Muhammad Ali’s quote “Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. FLABSLAB isn’t about making money. No, that responsibility belongs to his creative agency Nerf Creative. FLABSLAB is a passion project, a platform for Koh to take his ideas and make them real.

The toys created through FLABSLAB are things that Koh would buy for himself. “In a way, it’s a little bit of a dictatorship,” Koh says, “of course, I’ll listen to input—it is a collaboration—but the toys produced are just stuff that I like.

“A lot of people say that I’m an artist. I feel kind of insulted on behalf of actual artists who dedicate their lives to the craft. I just have stupid ideas [and I need artists to help make it a reality].”


5. DEAD KOZIK: THE MAN INSIDE EDITION (2013)
“This was by Kevin Gosselin and it was from his Kickstarter project. He made this in the style of Kozik’s celebrity busts. This one is a custom, showing Kozik in half his human form and the other as a skull. This is the only one in the world.”

Koh is realistic about his toy collection when he dies. He knows that he can’t take it with him. He tells us about images that he reposted on his IG account about a toy collector who passed away two years ago. A man who had so many toys that it took his friends and relatives that long to unpack everything. “It’s a burden, a burden that’s left for the family to deal with. I don’t want that for my own family so the plan is to liquidate everything and have them split the money among themselves.”

Patience isn’t his strongest suit. He bristles at the thought of cataloguing his toys and dealing with—in his own words—”stupid” buyers. “I long for the day when someone would appear at my doorstep and just buy everything. Everything, including the office, and I’ll walk away.”

When that day comes, it’ll feel like an empire has come to an end. But to Jeffrey Koh, the enfant terrible of the toy world, maybe it might feel that he finally has the much-needed space to breathe in.

And who knows, maybe he’ll feel the need to fill it up once again.

Photography by Jaya Khadir

FJ (left) and Isaac (right).

Sai Fengjia (FJ, as she’s commonly known) and Isaac Ang were born in the '90s. Too young to experience the grunge era nor relish in the heyday of X-Men: The Animated Series. But it didn't stop them from indulging in their love for the era or earlier.

They met at polytechnic, studying to be graphic designers. They bonded over their shared love of the past. "We got into streetwear," FJ says. "There were a lot of Supreme, HBA, people were dressing like ASAP Rocky, that sort of thing." Like many people in those days, YouTube was a treasure trove of content and FJ and Isaac were willing patrons of short clips and unboxing videos. "We watched people collecting vintage snapbacks," FJ adds. "Not only were they restoring them, they were also talking about the history behind the caps."

That was the trip over the edge of the rabbit hole and they fell into the world of vintage clothing. They chanced upon videos by Round Two, a secondhand clothing business, and had insights into a behind-the-scenes look into its operation. But what cemented the duo’s aspiration to open up their own vintage clothing shop was from a trip to Shimokitazawa, Tokyo. They enjoyed the hospitality and the local owners’ willingness to share their expertise, regardless of the language barrier. "We saw KINJI (used clothing store) and other secondhand stores," FJ says. "It was everything that you see them sell online but in a physical store. I remember Isaac saying to me, Haha, when we return to Singapore, let’s do something like this."

It may be an off-the-cuff statement but it planted a seed. The plan to open up a physical space was postponed until Isaac finished his National Service and in 2018, they set up Loop Garms in Little India. What started as a passion project, has now grown into something else. It's a living. It's still a familiar terrain but now new landmarks have taken root—there’s a business component attached to it; they have a staff who depend on them for their livelihood. While the local vintage market has grown, Loop Garms manages to remain relevant with a vintage selection that caters to almost every demographic and its marketing outreach.

For the latter, FJ and Isaac upload educational videos on how to spot an authentic vintage piece or bite-sized clips on their social media platforms on what they are wearing. It’s this sort of outreach that puts them in the foreground of public perception.

"We bought items with no intention of flipping it," FJ says. "They were just things that we got from eBay that appealed to us." Comic paraphernalia is more of FJ’s wheelhouse, while anime and manga were Isaac’s. But for the rest, they are usually chosen, more often in unanimity.

Racks on racks at Loop Garms.

It borders on hoarding. Over the years, people were dropping off things at the shop. Things that they were too lazy to sell themselves or just want other people to bask in the items’ nostalgic value. FJ and Isaac try will make space for the goods but it starts to turn into a game of "where-else-can-I-clear-to-display-them"? The Loop Garms shop is a scene of organised chaos. Chocked with ’80s-’90s pop culture items in seeming disarray, items were grouped by some unspoken logic. FJ points to the display case at the front counter, a small anthill of old electronic equipment—mobile phones, pagers, handheld game consoles — many were donated by her family. T-shirts of the moment hang from invisible threads from the ceiling. Action figures loosed from the confines of their boxes, stand posed on a shelf to the side.

FJ reveals that she doesn't have the heart to toss out anything. "If I don’t have the space for it, I'd put them in a box and I'll think about what to do with them the next time."

Loop Garms has a healthy international customer base. It is where a lot of their big-ticket items go to. "Mind you, many of our customers are young and they think that vintage must be old-looking or secondhand; something you must thrift. We try to educate them about this. Having a physical space allows for conversations like this to happen."

So, what do customers usually look for? According to Isaac, the local clientele is more trend-driven. "There was a series of T-shirts called 'American Thunder'. Basically, it had lightning streaks on the front and features some sort of Native American-related print. We carried them and they were sold out in 2018. The following year, we had people DMing us saying that they recall us stocking a couple of American Thunder tees in our store. We were wondering why there was a sudden interest and then realised that Travis Scott wore a couple of them on his tour. People are looking at these again because someone famous wore them."

When Netflix’s The Last Dance aired, interest in Chicago Bulls memorabilia surged. Basketballs with the Chicago Bulls logo or posters of Dennis Rodman would double in price. One would point to the nature of supply and demand but it’s more accurate to point to the cyclical nature of fashion—a fad never falls out of season; it hibernates.

Isaac argues that it doesn’t matter what age you are, who can fault you for having an appreciation of the period? I mean, are we going to go after historians next?

"It's really just nostalgia,” Isaac justifies. “But it's not because it’s cool to like pieces from the '80s and '90s. There was a quality to them."

And there's a bigger reason for this: the stories. FJ and Isaac love the histories that come with the T-shirts. "Like us, there’s a personal connection between the customer and the shirt. There was one guy whom we were chatting with and he noticed a Speed T-shirt we had displayed. He pointed at it and said that his dad and he used to watch Speed.

It does reframe your perception of what FJ and Isaac do. Maybe they are more than collectors or packrats. Rather they are archivists of a past for the next generation.

1. INDUSTRIAL SYMPHONY NO. 1 TEE

Isaac: “In the late ’80s, early ’90s, David Lynch created a concert performance called Industrial Symphony No. 1. They created a promo T-shirt that you can only get at the show. We saw a vintage store owner talk about how significant the Industrial Symphony No. 1 T-shirt was to him and we thought about doing a video as well because we have the same shirt. After we posted it, a guy from the States DMed us and offered USD1,000. We declined. We weren’t trying to sell the T-shirt, we just wanted to talk about it and see people’s reactions. Then, we had offers from other people as well and the guy who offered USD1,000 came back with another number: USD2,000. At this point, we’ve no idea if he was joking or not. Obviously, we declined. A couple of months later, he contacted us again. He said that he may not have the most money but no one wants this shirt more than him. And he offered USD3,000. But we refused again. We didn’t want to sell the shirt because the fit is great. We have an XXXL, which would be a modern-day XL; it’s a size that’s very popular because a lot of people can wear it.”

2. NATURAL BORN KILLERS TEE

Isaac: “I remember growing up in Australia and my mom allowing me to watch this. I love Natural Born Killers; love Woody Harrelson... Robert Downey Jr’s character was pretty hilarious. I dig the whole vibe of the film. Pity I don’t wear this any more.”

3. LOLLAPALOOZA ’92 TEE

Isaac: “I’ve never been to Lollapalooza but it doesn’t stop me from wearing this. That year, they had a sick line-up of bands that I’m into: Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, but more importantly, we tend to collect things that occur in our birth year—1992. The design of this appeals to us.”

FJ: “Fun fact, the Lollapalooza ’93 tee featured fractal art in its design. It was based on the Windows Media Player visualiser. We have a ‘Fractal Generation’ tee by Roberto Azank, a fractal artist, who made visuals for Macworld and Apple conferences.”

4. THE 1992 AND 1996 LITHUANIA TIE-DYE KITS

Isaac: “The national Lithuanian basketball team wanted to go to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but they didn’t have the funds. The Grateful Dead saw their plight and wanted to sponsor them. They even got their designer, Greg Speirs, to create their kit, which is why their 1992 basketball team’s uniforms were all tie-dyed in the colours of the Lithuanian flag. This uniform is special because the country just achieved independence from the Soviet Union and now they are at the Olympics. And this is their first-ever uniform featuring Skullman... and they came in third!

FJ: “They’d win another bronze medal in the next Olympics and another bronze in 2000. We only have the ’92 and ’96 shirts. Again, prices for these skyrocketed after Jonah Hill was spotted in the ’92 tee. I like these tees because of the underdog story.”

Photography: Jaya Khidir

He hardly looks like a man with a green thumb, let alone a whole garden. Darren Loke, who is behind Omitir, Veblen Supplies and handles operations at Aa Furniture, collects plants—mostly aroids and caudiciforms.

His interest in them was first piqued during his time with his ex. She had plants, and in those heady days of romance, he lapped up her overspilt passion. He started his own collection; a few here and there initially. Until his hobby blossomed into an obsession. When the pandemic hit, he was plunged even deeper into his garden.

“Obviously, when you start a hobby, you want to explore and understand the craft,” Loke explains. “There are plants that grow around us but then you discover others from the highlands [ecosystem] or more temperamental ones like cold-loving plants that won’t survive in Singapore. It came to a point where I had to concede to only growing plants that can thrive in our climate.”

Before the use of hashtags, interest in plants stopped short of simply knowing their general nomenclature, not even their genus. When it comes to describing a tree, most can say that it has leaves and is covered with bark, but falter if pressed for specifics.


1. OPERCULICARYA PACHYPUS
“This would be my most expensive purchase. The plant takes decades to reach a certain size and is hard to root. If you were to get one with a 30cm trunk, it could set you back between SGD1,700 and SGD3,800. I got one for about SGD850 but it died. It’s hard to grow but I took it as a challenge. Of the three that I bought, only one has survived. They are succulents so they love dry conditions. You probably have to water them just once a week so they are quite low maintenance. The only downside is that they need a lot of light, preferably under a full sun.”

2. PHILODENDRON MAYOI
“It’s the look of the plant that caught my eye. I like the shape, the way the foliage forms. I probably got this for SGD5 at a supermarket. This was the first plant that I got in 2014. It now resides at my grandma’s but I’ve another in the office. As a climbing plant, it has grown quite tall.

Then, social media made it easier to identify plant types. COVID brought about a heightened insularity that accelerated plant interest for shut-ins. “It used to be that any plant tips you get would most probably be from a US writer with knowledge about plants in their region,” Loke said. “Now it’s more varied.”

Loke had already developed somewhat of a monastic existence a year before the pandemic. He stayed in more, which resulted in an explosion in his plant collection. (Loke also runs an IG account detailing his green wares)

Ficuses are his jam. While commonly found in Singapore, a ficus plant has different subspecies; some hail from Myanmar, others from Japan. Loke is attracted to their forms, finding them “interesting”. Driven by aesthetics, Loke would pair a plant with the pot.

You may have heard people say that having a garden helps them relax. Not Loke. It’s the opposite for him. He used to enjoy tending to his plants whenever he returned from work but his obsession led him to constantly fret about them. “If you think about it, it can be a chore,” Loke says.

One of two rented plots at Chwee Heng Nursery.

He has stopped counting but Loke reckons he has about 400 plant species. Then, catching himself, he adds a disclaimer: “But I’ve cut down a lot.” His current collection is stored in two places: at Aa Furniture showroom and Chwee Nursery in Seletar.

Plants at the nursery blossom due to the humidity. Once they are ready, Loke propagates them and transfers them to the showroom for display and sale. These plants are suitable for indoors and their presence helps customers to visualise, and inspires them to spruce up their own homes with a plant.

He waters the plants twice a week at the showroom and once a week at the nursery. Knowing that his plants are in an environment where they can thrive, assuages his fears about their survival. “I believe,” Loke adds, “that some plants thrive in neglect. Just give them the basics and let nature take care of the rest. In the end, they are plants, right? We shouldn’t be working for them.”

He tried growing a Pachypodium namaquanum but the species is found in dry rocky deserts and thrives in harsh conditions—extreme summer heat and wind. They can survive in a tropical setting, he says. “Think of it as a controlled situation. Air-conditioning with artificial grow lights just to maintain that environment but it’s not sustainable because, at the end of the day, these guys won’t reach their full growth potential.”


3. PHILODENDRON SPIRITUS-SANCTI
“This used to be a unicorn. Hard to get. In the wild, in South America, there could be less than a thousand plants. But over the last few years, several nurseries started tissue-cultivating it to boost the population. It’s easier to find now but it is a slow-growing plant. It took me eight months to get this one from Brazil to acclimatise to Singapore’s weather. But it’s a beautiful plant and worth all the work.”

4. FICUS MACLELLANDII
“They are known for their slender leaves that are broader at the top. They used to be a common landscaping plant [in Singapore] during the ’70s. Then, for some reason, they became hard to find. I’m not sure why that is the case. I asked someone and was told they were used widely in government projects until they were phased out in favour of larger-leafed plants. The one I got is the Ficus alii, a Japanese cultivar with even thinner leaves. I had to get a friend to order it in for me. I find them to be very elegant-looking. They are statement pieces for your home and they are really easy to grow.”

To Loke, a plant is only ready when it starts flowering. “That’s when the plant goes through a full cycle of growth, which means it’s healthy in that current condition. That’s something I definitely learnt. There are a lot of expensive mistakes.”

It is an expensive hobby to get into. The pandemic brought about a price inflation in the plant market, where the entrepreneurial and, depending on who you ask, the exploitative, took advantage by flipping plants for a higher profit. These days, plants are more affordable, the best time to get into the hobby, if you ask us.

Loke doesn’t refute that this can be considered an old man’s hobby. “Gardening taught me to slow down. For the tangible side of things, there are some rare plants that only a few importers can bring in. You’ll just need to make the right contacts. With enough money, you can get almost any plant you want.

“Even so these are life forms that will come and go,” Loke says as he plucked the leaves of a frankincense plant and crushed them between his fingers. With cupped hands, he breathed in the balsamic and woody fragrance.

From the ashes of the pandemic, the local plant community has grown ever larger. While some might opine that it’s just another consideration to create a space for a garden; think about this: it was all green before we intruded. Maybe, space can be made for both.

Photography: Jaya Khidir

To hear Ng Seok Har and Michelle Lim talk about pottery is to experience love. They wax lyrical about how a vase is made, from the kneading and throwing of the clay, to bestowing it a form on the wheel, till it’s baptised by fire in the kiln.

Lim points to a blood-red bowl. “Do you know how this ox-blood glaze came about? Before the Song Dynasty period, China was the only country that could get this level of red. As the legend goes: the imperial potter was so stressed that he couldn’t get the particular red hue that he leapt into the kiln to die. But in doing so, he finally got the desired red. Apparently, bone ash was key in achieving that colour.”

The material, clay, holds history. It comes from the ground upon which humans, animals, vegetation have trodden and interred for centuries. There is something existentially mind-blowing about this very idea.

“It’s humbling to know that, in the grand scheme of things, you’re just a speck that’s still learning,” says Ng, “That’s what appeals to me.”

“This was made by Tju Tjuna Andy, an indigenous artist from the Ernabella tribe in central Australia. If you’re familiar with indigenous art, it is usually painted on a flat surface, often like a bird’s eye view of the land. Dots are often applied, their colours and patterns symbolising rivers, well holes and where food can be found—like these emu footprints circling a well. The designs are done without preliminary sketches; it’s a direct translation of what they see in their mind’s eye. The indigenous community doesn’t usually paint three- dimensional forms but has recently begun to work with potters.” - Lim

“This is the first piece we collected as a company. If Mud Rock [Ceramics] were to be in dire financial need, we would have to sell it. Made by Takeshi Yasuda, he is a magician with porcelain and one of Japan’s living national treasures. This was made in Jingdezhen, China, the porcelain capital of the world.” - Ng

“When Mud Rock was first established, we went to visit Takeshi who was getting ready for a gallery show. We managed to get a few pieces before the event, without the high gallery prices.” - Lim

It’s the act of creation, where the alchemy of earth, water, fire and air can give birth to a ceramic piece.

“Innately, every human being longs to create,” Lim says. “And even if you don’t do it yourself, watching another person do it is rather satisfying. We feel very lucky to be able to make pottery by hand. And we’d be happy to keep on doing it.”

The passage from Ecclesiastes comes to mind: “Of earth, they were made, and into the earth they return together”. It sums up the women’s singular vision—one that was forged individually even before their paths crossed.

Ng’s first dalliance with pottery occurred when she worked in the foreign exchange market in Japan. When she returned to Singapore, she traded in her banking life for one in ceramic making. Lim’s path was more linear, with her studying pottery at the Australian National University and becoming a full-time lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic.

They first met at a non-profit ceramics festival called “Awaken the Dragon.” Organised by Lim, the festival was to raise awareness about the historical significance of Singapore’s last two remaining dragon kilns. The chance meeting also awakened the idea of reintroducing handmade ceramics into the homes and dining spaces of Singapore. This led to the formation of Mud Rock Ceramics.

There was never an official long-term goal for the business. “We didn’t think that far when we started,” Ng says. “We just looked ahead and continued walking.”

Now Mud Rock Ceramics celebrates its 10th anniversary with Clay Camp, which offers guided museum tours, lectures and masterclasses with veteran ceramicists like Iskandar Jalil and Janet DeBoos.

Over the decade, Ng and Lim also amassed a cumulation of ceramics. As their collection grew, so did its rarity and value. They haven’t sold off anything, citing that each piece holds too special a significance to part ways with. Ng shows us an earth-coloured vase from Hagi, Yamaguchi. “I collected this to remember my visits and what I’ve learnt from my stay.” The ceramics fill their house, many of which are not kept in storage but remain in use. Friends who come over are asked to choose from a selection of tea cups to sip from. Daily, vases are filled with flowers. “You feel more joy in using them than packing them away in safe storage,” Lim reasons.

One is reminded of the Jewish folklore about the golem. Made from clay or mud, it is brought to life through incantations written on paper that’s placed in its mouth. In this instance, the ceramic vessels are like tiny golems: fully formed and purposeful as pieces of utilitarian art.)

Miraculously, Lim says that she hasn’t broken a single ceramic from the collection (at the admission, she raps her knuckles on the surface of her wooden table). “Sadly however, I have had guests who have broken stuff within 30 minutes of their visit.”

“There’s no big story to this Lisa Hammond piece. It’s just beautiful. This is the only piece that we bought online without ever meeting the artist or being at the gallery. It’s one of those moments where you just want a Lisa Hammond work in your collection.” - Lim

“I purchased this tea bowl at the Clay Gulgong, a ceramic festival. This is completely wood-fired with the clay and wood taken from Janet Mansfield’s land. Janet is an important figure in the ceramic world for the last 30 years. She founded and served as president of the International Academy of Ceramics. I was invited to her place in the clay commune that she built. She was the first who taught me how to do wood firing. It isn’t what this tea bowl is about, but rather what it means to me.” – Lim

As to the criteria of the pieces that make it to their collection? “There needs to be an instant attraction,” Ng says, “because we are ceramicists, we are aware of the work that goes into a piece and the value of it.”

Lim extends a pair of nondescript mud-coloured cups with dark brown speckles. “These were made by Yuri [Wiedenhofer], a hermit who lives up on a mountain in New South Wales. You can’t buy his creations anywhere. When we visited him, these cups were a present from him.”

She holds them reverently, caught in the charge of a quiet air. Her finger traces a minute chip in the rim of one of the cups. A lamentable accident but one that is eclipsed by what the cup represents, instead of what it is.

“It is quaint experiences and little stories like this that make the pieces we have so special.”

“When I lived in Japan, I visited Mashiko, a pottery town whose most significant son is Shoji Hamada. I saw this piece at a gallery and it was love at first sight. It called out to me because of its unique texture and special glaze.” - Ng

“The clay in Mashiko isn’t fine, but tends to be craggy and rough, which accounts for the unique texture in its pottery. You wouldn’t guess it but the glassy beads on that vase were formed from wood ash. The ashes settle on the clay while in its molten state, turning into glass when fired. All the colours that you see have been forged by the movement of the flames.”
– Lim

“My teacher arranged for me to visit Carol McNicholl’s studio, which used to be a former piano factory. Carol is a character, having risen up with peers like Vivienne Westwood. In her home/studio, there’s a plaster ceiling of roses in the kitchen and a staircase that’s lined with olive oil cans. This piece is made from a plaster mould — it looks like three teacups stacked together but is actually just one vessel. All of Carol’s work is politically-themed. There are drawings of aeroplanes on the exterior and on the inside you can see drawings of butterflies.” – Lim

Photography: Jaya Khidir
Art Direction: Joan Tai

A significant milestone in Dexter Tan's life involved sneaker collecting.

Tan was in the line to purchase some limited-edition kicks at Leftfoot. It was early morning and not one of the 20 people in the queue was in any mood for conviviality, save for Jon Fong, who complimented Tan on his New Balance shoes. They started talking, a friendship blossomed, and later the duo created Sole Superior, Singapore's first sneaker convention.

Sole Superior is a grassroots, community-based effort. The lads wanted a convention that was for the fans by the fans. It’s to be a day out with the family—an inclusive event, where you aren’t judged by who you are or what you wear.

It is the sort of openness that led to Tan amassing close to 400 pairs of shoes. When he started, he collected like a fiend and wasn't deliberate with his purchases. "I'd look for deals. I'd go to outlet shops and buy, and buy." He spent up to SGD1,000 per month on sneakers.

But that was then. Tan has since slowed down. Space constraints, he tells me. When he eventually moves into his new flat, Tan is considering rotating his kicks out—which ones he'll display and which he'll wear.

A formidable threat to Tan’s collection is entropy. All things eventually fall apart over time, but sneaker soles are particularly prone because they are usually made of polyurethane (PU). As a sports shoe material, PU is ideal because it is hard wearing and absorbs shock well. It is, however, susceptible to hydrolysis. Over time, PU polymers break down from exposure to water or even just water vapour. It is the latter that poses a great threat for sneaker collectors because their prized shoes are not safe from hydrolysis even when they go into storage in mint condition—especially in a warm and humid place like Singapore.

NIKE TERMINATOR ZOOM LOW SYRACUSE
“I was 17 when I wanted a pair of Air Force 1s. So I saved up and went with my parents to 77th Street to make the purchase. When they saw the colourway, they felt it didn't suit me. My mom made an offer: if I chose something else, she'd pay half of it. So we went to Leftfoot—which was two stores down—and saw Nike's "Be True To Your School" collection. They were in colourways of popular US colleges and I chose Syracuse because their house colours [of orange and navy] were similar to my JC (junior college). They evoke so much nostalgia that I bought five more pairs. I'm now down to my last pair, which I wear sparingly.

NIKE PLAYSTATION AIR FORCE 1 LOW
“These promo samples were only issued to Sony execs and family members. I think there are about only 100-ish pairs worldwide. I first saw them in a Japanese magazine and someone in an Air Force 1 collectors group on Facebook was selling them. They didn't come with the box and he sold them to me for a little over SGD1,000, including shipping. Now, an unworn pair could go for SGD10,000, which is too bad as I wear mine all the time. They are still in okay condition though.”

Tan is taking the hydrolysis in stride. Might as well, he reasons as he slowly runs out of space for his shoes. "Now, I'd go for specific shoes that catch my eye,” Tan says. “Those that have nostalgic value, that has a story to them. Right now, I'm in a phase of hunting down the pairs that I couldn't afford in my youth. Instead of buying three pairs a month, I'll save up that money and splurge it on that rare and expensive pair."

When it comes to fakes, Tan fully believes that no one can ascertain the authenticity of shoes with 100 per cent accuracy. He once sent a pair of New Balance to a resale platform and they were declared replicas. "Which was weird because I bought them from a New Balance store."

But he isn't susceptible to being a victim of knock-offs. "I bought a pair of Travis Scott Jordan 1 that I thought were real. But when I wore them during a sneakers meet-up, another guy said that the colour was off. And sure enough, when we compared my shoes with the ones that he got from Nike, the colour wasn't right. Further scrutiny uncovered something was also wrong with the sole patterns."

NIKE SB KOBE X ERIC KOSTON WITH HUMIDOR BOX
“These were the biggest steal for me. Only 24 pairs of these exist in the world, with two in Singapore. They aren’t even in my size. A local collector wanted to liquidate his collection and handed me a list of shoes for sale. I was interested in a couple of them but they had already been sold. Out of desperation, I picked two random pairs that were still available. I didn't know that one of them were Kobe shoes. I only found out about their rarity afterwards, which adds flavour to the purchase. Those are the shoes that many collectors would offer to buy from me, but I’ll never sell them because there will never be another pair by Kobe again.”

NIKE JORDANS 1 OG CHICAGO (1985)
“The Holy Grail for collectors. By luck, I bought them before the boom, at a good price. Right now, unworn pairs can fetch USD20K. I saw a Japanese site selling a pair for USD500 on IG. It was in poor condition but I so badly wanted to own one that I didn’t care. I got in touch with the sellers and was crestfallen when they said they didn't do overseas shipping. Undaunted, I looked for a Japanese resident through a forum to help me purchase and ship it to me. It was a leap of faith because I basically remitted money to a stranger I'd met online, but I got the shoes in the end. It's one of the few pairs that fulfilled a childhood dream for me.” 

Tan doesn't think it's right to shun someone who wears knock-offs. "I don't know if they know they are wearing fakes," Tan says, "but the fact of the matter is who am I to judge if that person feels happy in them? I’m fine as long as they don't try to sell them off as the real thing. Morally, there's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes the sneaker fanbase can be toxic, in that sense. We gatekeep so much. From an average Joe's point of view: why should I pay SGD1,000 for a pair of shoes when I can get a replica for SGD500 on Carousell? It still looks the same, and honestly, sometimes the fake ones look just as good as the real thing and nobody will ever know."

That sort of openness is what makes Sole Superior so special. Despite the rise in rental fees, Tan is nonplussed. Sole Superior has always been a side project for Fong and him. They don't run Sole Superior like a business. Every time they want to set it up, they consider whether it's logistically and financially sound for them to do so. "Sole Superior is a passion project of sorts. So, even if we don't put out an event this year, we'll be perfectly fine. There's always the next year."

NIKE AIR FORCE 1 LOW LUX (ANACONDA)
“This is the last pair that Nike produced using real reptile skin because PETA protested against it. In addition to the material, the shoes had embellishments like the lace lock, the keychain and the hangtag that were gold-plated. It retailed for USD2,000. At the time, it was an insane price for a pair of Air Force 1. I forgot how I came about it but I saw them going for SGD900. I was thinking who would sell them at such a loss? We hypothesised that they could have been gifted to someone and they just wanted to sell them off. This was something that I have wanted to own because I used to work for a consignment shop and I kept seeing this pair in the storage room. I still wear them but the soles are busted. If there are any pairs that I’d want to resole, it'd be this, and the PlayStation pair.” 

SNEAKERLAH X HUNDRED% X ASICS GEL-LYTE III (TEH-TARIK) / TOBYATO X ASICS NOVABLAST
“These are shoes that my friends have done and I won't ever sell them. This above is by SneakerLAH (a KL sneaker con) with ASICS. Bryan Chin (SneakerLAH founder) came to one of our events and was so inspired by what we did that he went back and did his own sneaker con. After that, they would work with ASICS for collaboration kicks. I was so happy for them that I would buy their shoes.

“The pair below was by the artist Toby Tan (aka tobyato), again with ASICS. It’s not my style but I still rock them when I go hiking. This collab was a huge moment for Toby’s career. During the initial stages of the collab, he’d ask for our [Fong and my] feedback. We gave him some tips but ultimately, the design was all him. Because we were privy to the whole process, it made this pair very special to me. I can still remember how excited Toby was when he gave us these shoes.”

Fortunately, Sole Superior will happen this year. HomeTeamNS approached them to hold it at its venue and while it seems odd to hold a sneaker con in an area synonymous with the army/police/civil defence forces, Tan and Fong saw the humour in it. "We are next to Yishun and we are doing it at HomeTeamNS. There's nowhere safer," jokes Tan. 

Photography: Jaya Khidir
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Photography Assistant: Chuen Kah Jun

Gian Jonathan's wardrobe is filled with only visvim.

It started with shoes.

When Gian Jonathan first saw his friend wear a pair of FBT shoes, he was piqued by how they looked. She told him that they were from the Japanese brand, visvim. That planted a seed in Jonathan. Years later, he would show us an ICT (Indigo Camp Trailer) Noragi Kofu outfit and remark on how hard it was to find it. “This was a special release at an Isetan pop-up,” Jonathan says. “If you look at the construction, the patterns may look random but it’s actually coordinated. Check out the indigo fabric and the kasuri design, which is how they…” Jonathan catches himself and apologises for “geeking out”.

It’s understandable to be lost in the world of visvim. It’s a brand that is uncompromising in its usage of traditional construction for its products. The founder, Nakamura Hiroki, was already well-versed in Americana, having spent time all over Alaska. After quitting his job at the Japanese division of Burton Snowboards, Nakamura decided to form his own label, visvim.

DOUGLAS JKT ND SILK (KOI)
“The koi is embroidered freehand by Japanese artisans. It’s handstitched on the back of a souvenir-style jacket that’s made of a natural-dyed blend of silk and cotton. Only 11 pieces were produced.”

By all accounts, the appellation visvim doesn’t mean anything, at least as a whole. Cribbed from a Latin dictionary, Nakamura loved how the words “vis” and “vim” look and decided to use them as a brand name. (Coincidentally, both words mean “power”.) visvim started as a show company but it grew into a thriving business that has found fans in Eric Clapton and John Mayer.

Years later, during a company trip to Tokyo, Jonathan’s girlfriend (now wife) gifted him a pair of visvim shoes. This would seal Jonathan’s fate as a serial visvim collector.

The clothes that Jonathan collects, while some might be precious with them, Jonathan treats most of them like any other pieces of clothing: washed, folded and worn. He took out a pair of red shorts that were made out of bandanas. He points to the vintage indigo patches that cover the holes incurred from constant wear. “My mom would sew some of the holes in my visvim T-shirts and she’ll tell me to throw them away already because of how worn they are,” Jonathan says.

REPAIR AND REUSE
“This pair of bandana shorts has been through a lot. I used a vintage indigo fabric and a bandana to patch up the holes. There’s also a faint curry stain on the white T-shirt.”
7 HOLE ’73 FOLK BOOTS IN SAND SUEDE
“It was in 2013 when, on a company trip, my wife decided to surprise me on my birthday with a pair of visvim shoes. We were in the store trying on different models before I settled on this.”

Jonathan takes the cake for being someone with a wardrobe that’s only filled with visvim products. To his credit, he wore other labels like Kapital, which is known for its traditional manufacture. “But the cutting and distressing are a little overwhelming for me,” he says. “It’s too much. For visvim, they know how to balance out the perfect and the imperfect.”

There are some downsides to having such a varied visvim range. For one, the weather in Singapore isn’t the most ideal for some of the thicker pieces. Jonathan can only wear them in cooler climates like Japan. And with the arrival of his two children, Jonathan has to make concessions to his collection. “When the firstborn arrived, he was always grabbing at my visvim jewellery and putting them into his mouth. I had to sell the accessories off. Maybe when they are older, I might start collecting again.”

Back then, when he first started collecting, there wasn’t enough information about how visvim processes its outfits. It was through meeting with other like-minded people, online forums and Google translate that Jonathan was able to develop his knowledge about many of visvim’s esoteric processes.

One such method is katazurizome. It’s a dyeing technic that places paper stencils on top of a fabric and a brush rubs dye into it. This process requires a high level of discipline that only an experienced craftsman possesses.

There’s also a visvim arm that makes products via “natural means”. Called “ICT”, which stands for “Indigo Camping Trailer”, the construction of products can utilise Japanese indigo to traditional mud dyeing techniques to the incorporation of vintage fabrics.

GRANGER BLAZER ND CHECK
“This was made for the Ron Herman Café Zushi Marina opening. Only three of these were made worldwide and probably one of the three is naturally dyed in this colour.”
SHORT-SLEEVED SHIRTS (ELLIS, WALLIS AND FREE EDGE MODELS)
“I like wearing these. Natural dyes and katazurizome stencil dyeing were used. Like this colourful piece (top-most), they could have printed it but that’s not the visvim way. Instead, they use multiple stencils to hand-brush over to form the pattern.”

Jonathan feels that he may have about a hundred visvim pieces, the scarcity of space in his home has nudged him to store some of them at his office. His IG account (@gian2) showcases the outfits that he finds interesting. He has somewhat catalogued his collection, or at least, the more precious items. “I told my wife that if anything were to happen to me, don’t anyhow sell my things. Just refer to the list.”

He recounts the time that he bought a fake. “It’s a short-sleeved shirt, naturally dyed with a Japanese print. When it arrived, there were no alarm bells. The fit is the same. It came with its dust bag.” But on the way back, he placed more scrutiny on the item and realised that the prints of the shirt did not bleed through the fabric. The outfit also felt thicker.” Jonathan had an existing shirt and compared the two, which corroborated his suspicions.

These days, Jonathan is more careful; often corroborating with the online visvim community on suspected items online. There is a modicum of awe though in the high technical level of a fake visvim piece. Even fakers who are cashing in on visvim’s popularity are trying to meet the brand’s exacting standards.

PFD JKT 3L GORE-TEX (NATURAL DYE)
“I like GORE-TEX, especially those that were naturally dyed. This is one of those rare pieces. It’s never been made again. I suspect that the combination of dye and GORE-TEX’s proprietary waterproof membrane made it too labour-intensive and time-consuming.”

There is someone who doesn’t share Jonathan’s enthusiasm for visvim. A framed pair of FBT RICO-FOLK shoes hangs on the wall of the master bedroom. Taken from visvim’s children’s range, the afterthought of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story popped into our heads. We point to them, Starting them young, we joke.

“Oh, I got that for the firstborn but he doesn’t like it,” Jonathan says, laughing. “He said it wasn’t comfortable."

Photography: Jaya Khidir
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Photography Assistant: Chuen Kah Jun

Put your records on.

Even though he has never been musically trained and doesn’t play any instrument, Teo Chee Keong (or CK as he’s known to friends) seems inexplicably drawn to music. There were the salad days of listening to Rediffusion in his mother’s kitchen; his father’s cassette tapes that were near to being worn out from constant play. “Boney M and ABBA... the disco stuff, you know?” CK specifies.

Eventually, like the revolutions of a vinyl on a record player, it all comes back full circle with his vinyl obsession starting in 2012, rather late in life, CK admits. Accompanying a friend to Zenn Audio Electronics, CK saw Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind. Even without a turntable, CK was besotted with the band and the album cover. So he bought it. It was priced at SG$70, a pretty penny in those days. “But I love it so much,” CK enthuses. With his prize in hand, CK felt that he had found the Holy Grail but he would not know how fragile a vinyl would be. Leaving Nevermind in his car for a day resulted in the disc getting heat warped. “I had to get it flattened again,” CK laughs. 

A set-up for music.

Nevermind may have started the collection but securing a turntable less than a year later to listen to it was the catalyst. “Once I had the means to play a record, I started buying more. I was still staying with my mother and every day, there would be records delivered to my house.”

His vinyl collection didn’t stop growing. In 2013, while holding on to his day job, CK opened a record store with Eugene Ow Yong called Vinylicious. The store was the first local record store to introduce Record Store Day in Singapore. In some way, this invigorated the vinyl-collecting culture in the country.

His vinyl collection is how CK reconnects to key moments in his life when he’d listen to the radio. “I’d listen to Casey Kasem’s America Top 40 on Redifussion religiously. Whenever I play his records now, Casey’s voice would come on and I’m back to my teenage years.”

CASEY KASEM'S AMERICAN TOP 40
“During my teens, I’d be in my parents’ kitchen listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on Rediffusion. I was fortunate to get copies of the vinyl that were sent to the station to be played. These vinyls are interesting because they are only pressed on one side as they are meant for the radio stations. The stations would have two players so one of them would be playing side one and side two will be on the other player ready to be played once side one is finished.”
MAYDAY'S GOD'S CHILDREN ARE ALL DANCING
“This is the band that my family and I love. My wife and I watched the band seven times whenever they played in Singapore. This record is our favourite because when my wife was giving birth, this was playing in the delivery room. We both think it’s kind of cool, the idea that our son was born listening to Mayday."

It is a formidable form of time travel. For many, a scent or a photograph can unlock a flood of memories. For people like CK, who have a stronger auditory sense, a piece of music can transport them to the moment when they first listened to it.

Aside from a live show, when it comes to the listening experience, the vinyl medium presents more dynamism. Analogue music gives a richer sound; there’s a warmth to it. “CDs and Spotify can’t create that experience. Vinyl does,” CK says.

In his Punggol flat, an entire room is set aside for his record collection. High ceilings made it possible for CK to install custom-made shelves (the design was cribbed from someone else’s collection that CK once came across). The cost of the furnishing? In the ballpark of SG$18,000.

Fully stacked, there is a system to his catalogue. One section houses music from the ’80s. Next to it are his jazz records—one that’s instrumental, another that features vocalists. Another part features genres like funk and soul and classic rock. Yet another is segmented into either the ’90s or the 2000s... it’s a complex directory that only CK knows how to navigate through.

PRINCE'S THE BLACK ALBUM
“I’m a big Prince fan. A week before he was supposed to release this album in 1987, Prince decided to recall all copies because he thought it was a bad omen. Only a lucky few managed to get the album. What I got is the reissue that was released in 1994. It’s not as expensive as the original 1987 version but it’s still worth something.”
PAUL SIMON'S ONE TRICK PONY
“I used to listen to Chris Ho on Rediffusion all the time. He’s my inspiration. When he passed away, his estate sold his music collection. What’s interesting about his collection is that he’d keep any newspaper clipping about the artist and the music. When you buy his collection, it’s like keeping a part of his legacy."

Some collectors are adamant about only acquiring original pressings but CK is non-plussed. “If I have SG$1,000 and if I’ve to get either one SG$1,000 record or several hundreds of records that are reissues or not rare, I’ll get those.”

He does have some grail items and many of them are precious in his sight. His record obsession has infected his son as well. “He’s musically inclined,” CK says. “He even introduced a few musicians to me like Eminem and Måneskin. He saw [the latter] in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2021,” CK says with pride.

It’s a collection that’s still growing. CK ponders if he should start selling some of them soon. So, what happens when his vinyl collection is no more?

NIRVANA'S NEVERMIND
“This was the first vinyl I got. It was at Zenn Audio Electronics. I was there with a friend and I saw the album with the original German pressing. It was expensive, about SGD70, but now it’s worth about SGD300.”
SANTANA'S ABRAXAS (MOFI ONE-STEP)
“For a MoFi (Mobile Fidelity) One Step record, steps in the plating process are reduced to minimise surface noise, which means better audio. I didn’t get it when it first came out and I saw this at Analog Vault and I convinced Sharon [the owner] to sell it to me. I got it for SGD1,200 and I still haven’t unsealed it yet.”

“You mean when I don’t have it with me?”

He looks sad for a moment as though the image of empty shelves in a high-ceilinged room is triggering.

“When I grow older and nearing the end, I can accept the fact that I can’t take it with me. But if for some reason, my collection were to go missing or disappear, I think I might fall into depression.”

Photography: Jaya Khidir
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Photography Assistant: Danial Mirza

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