Meet the “uncles” who love sketching national monuments | The A List
From left to right: Francis Theo, Tony Chua and Steven Seow (Photos: Claudio Chock)

Meet the “uncles” who love sketching national monuments | The A List

Retirees Francis Theo, Tony Chua, and Steven Seow had no idea their lives would be altered when they picked up urban sketching years ago as a leisurely pastime.

Their love for sketching urban architecture has won them everything from curious stares to praise and offers of free food and drink from strangers. More recently, they have become known affectionately, if unofficially, as the “uncles” who love monuments, after a travelling exhibition of a similar title by the National Heritage Board, which features their sketches of Singapore’s national monuments.

The drawings are moving vignettes of monuments such as the Old Hill Street Police Station and the National Museum of Singapore. Although the ink and watercolour sketches look effortless, the trio sometimes spend up to several hours at a time sketching the buildings on location.

For passers-by, the sight of seniors parked on foldable stools, sketching away busily, is an unusual one. It stops them in their tracks, they dally to observe the sketchers at work, and they cannot resist posing the retirees curious questions about what they are doing.

uncles love monuments Francis Theo

Theo, 70, a former senior operations manager, who is never out without his straw fedora decorated with colourful pins when he sketches outdoors, says: “Many people will watch me sketch and compliment me. Drink stall operators will offer me drinks, and more than once, people have offered me kueh-kueh and cakes.”

uncles love monuments Tony Chua

While most of their encounters with strangers in the course of urban sketching have been pleasant, if not benign, Chua, 69, a former quality inspector, remembers an incident where he almost jumped out of his skin.

He was sketching alone at the Bukit Brown Cemetery when he noticed moving shadows around him. Fortunately, he quickly realised that there was nothing sinister about the shadows – they belonged to people paying respects at a nearby grave.

Through it all, their love for urban sketching remains undiminished and they continue to be intrepid archivists for the Singapore landscape and life. Besides sketching national monuments, they also immortalise neighbourhoods and ways of life in their sketches. One example is the iconic Rochor Centre and its blocks of colourful flats, which they sketched before the buildings were demolished in 2018.

Theo and Chua, met through the arts enthusiast group, Urban Sketchers Singapore. They were acquainted with Seow, 68, who used to work in the oil and gas industry, through the creation of the exhibition. Their shared love for sketching urban architecture is palpable; when they meet, their banter on art, architecture, culture and heritage flows easily.

On what keeps him sketching, Theo says: “Practice makes progress. It is not a competition against somebody else. Simply believe in yourself, do what you love and love what you do.”

Indeed, he enjoys sketching sights and scenery so much that he has stopped taking photographs on holidays overseas, preferring to capture memorable moments through the sketches instead.

Seow on the other hand, has his eyes set on completing a 10m-long by 1m-wide sketch of the aerial view of Singapore, spanning Marina Bay to Changi Airport. He has plans to do this without help of a drone, using just his mind, imagination and knowledge of the landscape.

He says: “This is a challenge to myself after completing all the gazetted monuments of Singapore in a year.”

With additional reporting by Claudio Chock.

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