The book “Grey is the New Black: Unseen Singapore” opens with a series of images of quiet corners in Singaporean neighbourhoods, photographed as quiet subjectless tableaus. To anyone who’s lived long enough in Singapore, these scenes would look achingly familiar. In one, chairs draped with wet towels linger right by a drying rack covered in more wet towels in the garden-like front porch of an HDB flat. In another, unoccupied red plastic chairs in a quaint old coffee shop sit in stillness, as if in waiting.
Ask any Singaporean if there’s anything amiss, and the answer would likely be along the lines of “Where the aunties and uncles ah?” But continue flipping through the pages and there they are: a spread of 35 of them, the familiar occupants of these spaces.
In Singapore, “auntie” and “uncle” are colloquial terms you can hear anywhere. At the receiving end of these titles — often used either endearingly or in a disgruntled manner — are typically the elderly. There’s indeed a certain distinctive quality to being a Singaporean senior. It’s hard to pin down what exactly these defining qualities are.
For over a year, the photographer and author of this book — Rachel Loh, 26, and Bella Bray, 25 — spent numerous days trawling the streets of Singapore in search of the ultimate quintessence of these terms.
There are indeed many facets to being a senior in Singapore. Loh and Bray, a pair of friends who met through Bumble BFF, decided to focus on one: their particular sense of style. Freewheeling, unrestrained and seemingly without a care in the world, aunties and uncles dress for utility, for themselves, for the hell of it. Unflinching uncles in baggy polo shirts, in a silent and intense round of Chinese chess at Chinatown, cigarettes held between their fingers. Or aunties queueing up in front of a closed 4D stall early in the morning, their floral shirts markers of their inherent kiasu-ness.
“Having lived in Singapore all my life, the things that have formed the identity of everyday Singaporeans when I was younger gradually became normal as I grew older,” writes Loh in the foreword. She never thought the way aunties and uncles dressed as anything noteworthy. “But as I interacted with them, I saw the pride in which they carried themselves and the way they dressed for themselves.”
Bray, an Australian who considers Singapore her second home, first came up with the idea for the project. It stemmed from “a constant feeling of boredom with what the fashion industry and the media portray as fashionable,” she writes. “I was sick of being told that to be ‘cool’, you have to be youthful and slim.” Individuality, however, is also something that fashion has always celebrated. And if that’s anything to go by, these aunties and uncles who dress for no one but themselves are perhaps the coolest of the bunch.
In search of a diverse variety of seniors, Loh and Bray street-scouted in many different neighbourhoods, from Yishun to Queenstown, Chinatown to Little India. Hours could pass at markets or hawker centres, walking around in hopes of spotting stylish aunties and uncles. “There’d be someone walking through the hawker casually and we’d both look at each other and be like, ‘Wow, they’re great’,” recalls Bray. The pair would then approach their potential subject, compliment the way they dress and, sometimes, have long conversations. “We both conversed with them through a lot of hand gestures, Google Translate and my poor Mandarin, if they spoke it,” says Loh.
The resulting series mostly includes aunties in their shopping get-up, smilingly posing in their slippers, their market haul in hand or their totes securely kiap-ed under their arms. Bright bold colours and varying prints that run the gamut from swirling florals to the silver face of a tiger outline their varying looks. “We highlighted more aunties because we wanted to specifically celebrate women,” says Loh.
Fewer uncles made it into the book, but those who did are exceptionally well-dressed. One uncle, referred to as Barber Yus in the book is a barber at Golden Landmark Complex. In the photographs, he’s decked in a tonal outfit of whites and neutral beiges, his newsboy cap slightly askew, a long grey ponytail draped against the back of his shirt and legs nonchalantly crossed.
So what exactly is auntie or uncle fashion?
“For me,” says Loh, “I think their defining characteristics no matter their style is their willingness to show their character even if something is considered not in style at the moment: either through a fun earring, their hair or something they might have worn when they were young and are still wearing it.”
Bray adds that it’s never about following trends. “It’s often bright, utilitarian or full of patterns, but the defining characteristics for me are comfort, practicality, sass.”
Documenting all this in a book is a means to dispel the stigma around the ageist misconception that the elderly don’t express themselves. Or that if they do, it’s considered “embarrassing or outdated,” explains Loh. “We also wanted to make sure that there was space for them in Singapore's fast-paced society. Most of the times we encountered them, we found them sitting alone in a corner and a lot of our conversations that didn’t end up in the book emphasised the way many have been left behind in society.”
Beyond the pretty pictures, a poignant takeaway from this documentation can perhaps be encapsulated in the words of Ajunta, one of the aunties in the book: “Age is just a mentality. If you think you’re old, you are.”
The “Grey is the New Black: Unseen Singapore” book was published in July 2020 and is now available online, and in-store at Times and Kinokuniya. Proceeds go to Happy People Helping People, a non-profit volunteer-run foundation supporting independently surviving elderly citizens.
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