Miniature art finds new fans in Singapore as interest in niche hobby grows

Miniature art has been gaining new ground in Singapore, with more artists giving the niche hobby a bigger fanbase in recent years.

Fatimah Mujibah

Fatimah Mujibah

The Straits Times


Mr Wilfred Cheah's latest model of a 'wayang' show, a collection of miniature food replicas and accessories done by Ms Celeste Chow, and miniature models made by Mr Anthony Ong. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ARTISTS/ THE STRAITS TIMES

April 30, 2024

SINGAPORE – Miniature art has been gaining new ground in Singapore, with more artists giving the niche hobby a bigger fanbase in recent years.

Among them is senior IT executive Anthony Ong, who stumbled on the craft during a sleepless night in 2021 when he became fixated watching videos of artists making tiny versions of furniture on YouTube.

Despite having no experience in drawing or painting, he went out the next day to art and craft supply store Art Friend to buy supplies to get started. He has not looked back since.

Over the last three years, Mr Ong, 33, has become adept at creating dioramas – models featuring scenes with three-dimensional figures with different textures.

He recently created a model of a scene at Jurong East MRT station – complete with doors and a platform, which has found him new fans.

He told The Straits Times: “The idea for that model came to me when I was standing at the station one day. I frequent Jurong East very often because I have to transfer trains to get home, so it holds some personal meaning to me.”

Before starting work on the model, Mr Ong snapped photos of the station, and began putting together materials like both base and balsa wood, styrofoam and a 3-D printing outline.

He took two weeks to complete the model – making time after work and on weekends – before giving it to the station staff, who have put it on display at the Jurong East MRT passenger service centre.

That is a source of pride for Mr Ong, whose friends had sometimes ribbed him about his models being ugly when he first started.

“They also asked me why I was taking on such a random hobby, but soon they saw how passionate I was about it, and my work began improving by leaps and bounds,” he said.

He added that his wife has always been supportive of him taking on the craft from the beginning, instead of him playing video games for a hobby.

Mr Ong said he spends about $100 a month on materials from both Art Friend and online sites, adding that “Art Friend is like my very own Sheng Siong”.

In the past, he sold his works on Etsy, an e-commerce website for handmade or vintage items, but stopped after realising he was pricing his items too low. They averaged around $40 though the price would vary depending on size and complexity.

He also sent his art in parcels by SingPost to buyers, which meant having to lug boxes to the post office after work.

In about two years, he has sold about 400 models, he said.

Mr Ong has teamed up with other miniature artists on larger projects, like the one he worked on with his friend, Ms Celeste Chow, 43, for a decarbonisation campaign commissioned by Sentosa in August 2023.

The project required about eight to 12 dioramas – when put together, it was about the size of a two-seater sofa, said Mr Ong.

However, Ms Chow’s real passion lies in creating miniature food art.

She owns Tingcorner, an online site that sells handmade miniature replicas of food items, often fashioned into trinkets like earrings.

The idea came to her in 2013, when her toddler daughter asked for toys that looked like food. She obliged and has not stopped, as she has time on her hands since leaving the civil service after 13 years.

When her second child, a boy, came along some years later, she continued to set aside time for her hobby, after she was done with chores or when her children were asleep.

She taught herself the intricacies of making miniature food art by watching YouTube videos and found that polymer clay was good material for her pieces.

Ms Chow, who is now a housewife, said: “It was something that kept me fulfilled. It started off with making food replicas, and then I started trying my hand at making those that resembled local food.

“It then started to grow into making flowers, kueh, and dishes and accessories.”

Soon, Tingcorner – named after her daughter Ting – began receiving several custom jewellery orders for trinkets like earrings, cufflinks and necklaces.

Her work has been gaining a wider audience. She has been commissioned for bigger-scale projects, one of which was for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth exhibit called What Makes Us Singaporean.

She took about a month to complete the project, which included the challenging task of moulding life-like models of people.

Former Singapore Armed Forces commando Wilfred Cheah is another miniature artist who is well-known for his complex displays.

He picked up the hobby of creating models because his family could not afford to buy him toys when he was a child. So Mr Cheah, now 58, started making toys with discarded materials, in what was an early start in recycling.

He said: “I don’t buy a lot of materials even now, except for paint and wires. I find that recyclable materials are inexpensive, easier to use and the results are better.”

To make his models, Mr Cheah leans towards things like used plastic containers, and has an ongoing deal with a worker at a nearby coffee shop to give him the empty aluminium Milo tins that would usually get thrown away.

After a 30-year career in the interior design business, he began making mini models as a hobby at 55, focusing only on pieces with nostalgic value – mainly linked to his childhood.

His most recent piece – a diorama of a “wayang” show, a traditional form of puppet theatre – was cobbled together from his memories of the time he would watch the wayang with his grandmother.

He said: “At the time, I had no idea what was going on, but I remember the activities happening around the show very vividly. There would be people selling food and people gathering around to watch the show.”

The diorama took nearly four months to complete and is not for sale.

If there is interest in his models, he keeps the original but is willing to recreate it if the “price and timing are right”.

Mr Cheah takes on only one job at a time and gives it his full attention, down to the tiniest details. Now and then, he gets questions about how much he makes from his hobby and whether it is enough to keep him afloat.

Instead of letting it bother him, he focuses on the encouragement he gets on social media from admirers, and from his family and friends.

He does not have plans to slow down anytime soon and hopes to continue creating miniature art, while reminiscing about the past, as long as his shoulders, hands and eyesight allow him to.

A consensus among the trio is their willingness to continue to strain their backs and eyes because of their passion for the hobby. Ms Chow seeks emotional fulfilment from her creations while Mr Ong hopes to keep exploring more designs and models while learning more about the hobby.

Said Mr Cheah: “I hope to carry on what I’m doing for years because it keeps me fulfilled and happy. I can’t describe that feeling.”

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