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Interview with illustrator and designer Lee Xin Li

LEE XIN LI is an independent illustrator based in Singapore. He graduated with an architecture degree from the National University of Singapore.

Xin Li often draws his inspiration from the environment he grew up in such as the culture, food, architecture, and history he has encountered.

Some of the notable works include the Kueh series and Peta Singapura.

Xin Li is a big fan of Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin as well as Guy Delisle’s travel chronicles which motivated him into drawing in 2013.

Besides illustration, he is an avid fan of the air force, loves traveling, tasting new flavors, and appreciating art and architecture.

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food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations How did you get into design and illustration?

Lee Xin Li: I started drawing since young my current design and illustration developed around my university days when I was studying architecture at the National University of Singapore.

I picked up a book entitled “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City” by Guy Delisle which motivated me to start drawing and observe our surroundings deeper.

Some of the earlier works were imagining Tin Tin from Herge’s “Adventures of Tin Tin” visiting Singapore and slowly it leads into illustrations about food as well such as the ubiquitous kueh, a kind of local snack.

food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

How did the idea of Makan Makan come about?

Makan Makan is a further development from the Kueh series. I saw it as an exploration of the local food beyond usual few such as Chilli Crab, Char Kway Teow, and Chicken Rice: these barely scratch the surface of the rich, diverse food culture here in Singapore.

It is also an attempt to document the kind of food and the culture it reflects in Singapore using the medium of illustration as some of these food dishes are getting harder to find locally. In my illustrations, I am always keen to explore and re-discover the environment around me such as the places I visit or grow up.

I think the environments we inhabit are a dynamic palimpsest of intangible and tangible layers such as architecture, culture, and food across time.

To put things in context, another motivation also came about at the beginning of the 21st century, there were also a number of closures of several long-running eateries in Singapore such as the Katong Bakery and Confectionery (1925 -2003) or Hock Hiap Leong (1940s – 2001), a coffee shop which was featured in a Royston Tan short film which I saw during my secondary school days.

Thus over the past decade or so in Singapore, there is a feeling of disorientation with the loss of this heritage.

food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

How long did it take to make Makan Makan?

The drawing of Makan Makan started around early October 2017 and ended around Late November 2017 in which is about 2 months‘ worth of work.

What’s the process for drawing each element or dish in it?

For each dish, I would go through food blogs, texts, Instagram posts, online reviews, magazine articles to gather information on the dish I am about the draw.

Next, rather than drawing generic depictions of the food, I would draw the dishes based on the actual ones served in real eatery or restaurant in Singapore.

I felt that this way, the food representation would have some realism and at the same time it documents both the food and a small part of the food history in Singapore such as Hainanese style western food served in Shaslik that goes back to 1986 or Lohei Yusheng, a kind of festive dish invented in Singapore’s Lai Wah Restaurant in 1964.

food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

Did you taste the foods before illustrating them? Did their taste influence your work?

Yes, some of the food items I drew in were from influenced by my fond memories of them such as the glutinous rice I had on my breakfast at Thong Kay Delights, the amazingly memorable satay from Chuan Kee at Old Airport Road or the unique and delicate Chendol Cream from Candlenut Kitchen or Singapurr Story chocolate truffles which has white miso and gula melaka blended in it made by Lim Jialiang (Demochoco) that represents the ongoing transformations of the local food scene.

food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

Mooncakes, 月餅 is a compilation drawn by Lee Xin Li of some of the different kinds of mooncakes available.

The variety of mooncakes you illustrated is huge. What does food design tell us about tradition and modern lifestyles? Do you think the relationship with food has changed?

The mooncakes tell a story about the geography, culinary (and cultural) exposure in various regions in Asia.

chinese_mooncakes_food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

What intrigued me was the variety of mooncakes one makes with what is available for the festival and how the tradition of the festival continues to influence the development of mooncakes.

Today you can get all sorts of flavours of the mooncakes which I see as keeping up to the contemporary times yet there is also a nostalgic preference for the classic mooncake flavours as well. While the food has changed, I feel the relationship with food hasn’t changed much. It continues to serve a purpose beyond physical nourishment.

food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

What’s the impression you want to give to your audience with your food illustration?

Together with the Makan Makan and Kueh pieces, I hope the piece shows the diversity of food in Singapore.

It is largely shaped by our multicultural environment, geographical location and how well-connected the city-state with its infrastructure. Growing up with these, I think we tend to take it for granted.

Information on Icelandic lamb soup to traditional kueh is easily accessible via a stable information network.

Ingredients from gula melaka from Malaysia to jamon iberico de bellota from Spain can be easily found in physical supermarkets or acquired through online retailers or by friends who could travel abroad easily with a well-connected air hub.

food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

“The dishes focus mainly on food more accessible to most of us. Only a handful are from restaurants especially if they have cultural significance or a long history.” – Lee Xin Li

Furthermore, the international mix of cultures in Singapore beyond the Malay-Chinese-Eurasian-Indian paradigm is simply breath-taking.

There are communities of Burmese, Thai, Koreans, Mainland Chinese, Japanese, Swiss, Germans, etc living in Singapore.

The cosmopolitan exposure makes us more accepting of cuisines arriving on our shores or on our encounters abroad.

I feel this is a crucial factor in the development of the food scene here in Singapore.

food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

Not taking the costs and manpower into account (which is the killer nowadays), this mentality encourages innovation and openness to how ingredients can be put together: over the past century this is already evident in the hawker food in Southeast Asia especially Singapore and Malaysia which developed in the past two centuries with the massive migration and movement of peoples from Europe, Far East Asia, Indian subcontinent and the Middle East across the archipelago.

Today, that openness continues to drive a keen interest in the kitchens of Singapore, from our homes to a Michelin rated kitchen.

Makan Makan is a snapshot of the dishes you can find in Singapore today, some of restaurants older than the republic and some from new generations of eateries.

chinese dimsum_food illustrator lee xin li_food illustrations

Thinking about what makes food appetizing. Do we taste also with eyes?

The food takes all our senses. Yes, we do taste with our eyes too. Beyond that, everything about our interaction with food uses all our senses (and perhaps more).

The sizzle of beef slices on the hot plate, or crackle of crispy pork skin on siobak, it is part of the experience. Then there are the flavours and textures that complement each other.

The colours and details we take in build excitement to the food….

Food is like art in that sense and menus are like a curated exhibition.

Yet, despite the complexity involved, all these took place in a split second as we eat and beyond the senses, the experience is something we remember.

We tap into memories, stories, and travel experiences as we eat too.

Thus, there are so many ways we can make food appetizing (or terrible) beyond just taste.

Photos and illustrations courtesy of Lee Xin Li

topic: food design, food illustrations

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