05 August 2021

Building Singapore, One Brick at a Time

Meet Jeffrey Kong, a brick artist whos been building models of all sorts for years (think along the lines of LEGO® My Own Creation). In honour of National Day, Jeff talks about what his journeys been like, and picks out his favourite Singapore-inspired projects that are simply unforgettable.  

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by Jeffrey Kong Jeff is a brick artist and the founder of Artisan Bricks. He is on a quest to try the best ramen in Singapore.

There is an oft-quoted saying: Everyone has a book in them. It took me a long time to understand that.

My name is Jeffrey Kong and I create with building bricks as an art medium. Most people would, upon hearing what I do for a living, think that I would have been building with bricks as a child. The reality is a lot less romantic – I only got into creating brick art by accident in my thirties (I’m now in my early forties), and it started as a means of escape, a cathartic activity during a low point in my life.

Back then I was an editor and writer for various magazines. When I stumbled upon a free software that enabled me to create my own designs without the need for physical bricks, it felt liberating, like being able to compose music without an instrument. This was a eureka moment to me – I was thinking, well, now that I’ve found this cool medium, what should I create with it?

Also read: These Folks Have the Coolest Jobs in Singapore

The first things that came to my mind were things like childhood memories and icons from the 1980s and 1990s, when all my troubles seemed so far away. I didn’t realise it then, but these ideas were chapters from the book that was hidden deep inside me. To me, the building brick is the medium that unleashed the desire in me to tell my stories, many of which are related to Singapore, the place that I call my home.

On looking back, everything that I learnt on the job as a brick artist – from figuring out building techniques to converting a passion into a sustainable business – all stem from this same desire to tell a story. Instead of using words and pictures to tell a story, like I did back in my publishing days, now I use simple building bricks to bring back the sense of wonder in you, or put a smile on your face.

Over the years I am fortunate to have worked on several creations related to my homeland Singapore, be it commissioned sculptures, building kits, workshops or personal projects. Here are some of my favourites:

The retro playgrounds in old HDB estates have a special place in my heart, because many of them are also no longer around. One of my favourite creations is a playful take on some of the iconic playgrounds that many Singaporeans grew up with, arranged in a sand-filled pit. It is a pity the authorities could not preserve or relocate the last remaining pelican or dove playground, so in a way they could live on in this brick model. This “medley” of local playgrounds is on permanent display at the Toa Payoh Public Library.

Another local icon that I love is the shophouse, which traditionally features a shop on its ground level, and living quarters on its upper floors. On their ground floor is the five foot way – a continuous passage that shelters pedestrians from the sun and rain. There are many styles of shophouses, ranging from the lavish Singapore Eclectic style to the geometric designs of the Art Deco style, and I love to challenge myself by creating them in different scales.

Also read: 6 Ways to Check Out Street Art in Singapore

One of my favourite shophouse builds is the Katong Red House Bakery, which was known for its swiss rolls, creamy custard puffs and other traditional pastries until it closed in 2003. I was commissioned to build a few models for the family who used to operate the bakery. I designed the shophouse as a gift box with a latch, and had the models shipped to Paris, where the family has since relocated. It is quite an honour to build a piece of history for the people who made it happen!

Singapore is a lovely city. There is so much history in our architecture. These include the Central Fire Station, Singapore’s oldest fire station, which I built as a farewell gift for their outgoing commander. Another beautiful example is the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Singapore’s second oldest Catholic church, which I was commissioned to create models and building kits for their 150th anniversary.

Then there is the official mascot for Singapore, the Merlion, which I had done in different versions over the years. My latest rendition in 2021 includes a baby Merlion and is probably my cutest to date.

Also read: 5 Hidden Gems for Artsy Souls Looking for Hands-On Fun

As a local I like to create my own take on the little things that I remember about my home. These include the ubiquitous blue recycling bin, the yellow-and-orange car park sign, the electronic road pricing ERP gantry (also known as “Every Road Pay”), and familiar vehicles on the road, such as our SCDF fire pumper and local buses in livery new and old. I used to take the bus all the time, so I remember the old TransitLink fare machine, and how we had to insert our fare card and press a button to select the correct fare.

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