Frame maker Tan’s little shop in eastern Singapore encompasses the whole of Asia — from Chinese artefacts and Cambodian gargoyles to Indonesian wood and Indian Gods.
“It’s not for sale,” he says, as he aims his torch at exotic bottles of wine and neatly arranged pieces of unknown stones. “This beautiful elephant God had no home when a friend stopped praying to it; I welcomed the statue because it has no other place to go to,” says Tan, oblivious of the irony involved in sheltering Him to which the Universe—including Tan and his little shop—belongs. “I collect what I love and am not worried about where it might go later,” he says.
For many people, a hobby is something that fills the empty space that begins to form in their lives once they are past their teens and twenties. Jobs that are not their passion can quickly seem forced and exhausting, and a hobby thus becomes an activity that they engage in without expectations of wealth or success. As a Roman poet once said—in our leisure, in what we do when we step back from the dreary business of life, we reveal what kind of people we are.
Tan reminds me of my sibling in Mumbai, who demands paper masks from whichever country I happen to visit. Painted masks from across Asia are nailed onto one of the walls of his home, and though our mother has never stopped asking why he collects them—even the ferocious looking ones with fangs and horns—I have not been able to explain it to her. He is as fascinated by masks as I am by kaleidoscopes; I seldom look at the ones I own, but the thought that I can see a world of colours through them whenever I want is strangely comforting.
The enthusiasm with which Tan shows me trinkets from Myanmar and life-like paintings of the ancient Chinese unveils a man in love with preserving beauty in whatever form. He reflects the enthusiasm with which my brother celebrates the wall in his home from which bizarre but beautifully eclectic pieces of art stare out at him. My own kaleidoscopes rattle in my drawer, reminding me of the wonderful hues they hold, tempting me often to peep at their fluid, shifting shapes. But why do we like collecting such stuff? We can’t tell.
In a 2016 story in Quartz, writer Alex Preston says:
Our hobbies tell a great deal about us and our world: about how we choose to present our lives to others; about the burdensome, expectation-freighted nature of free time; about our slippery relationship with the exigencies of productivity in late-capitalist society.
A keen birdwatcher, Preston takes us through a brief history of how hobbies came to be, and concludes with a quote from American environmentalist Aldo Leopold (from A Sand County Almanac), which dismisses any pastime that seeks rational justification for its existence. To wish to do it is reason enough, says Leopold. And I agree.
Photo: Framemaker Tan’s shop, Singapore