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Instagram darlings

Ms Shirley Wong gets up at 5am to put a creative touch to her lunch, such as cutting seaweed to make the image of a geisha (above) on her rice and using different food items to create the Totoro meal.
Ms Shirley Wong gets up at 5am to put a creative touch to her lunch, such as cutting seaweed to make the image of a geisha (above) on her rice and using different food items to create the Totoro meal.PHOTO: SHIRLEY WONG
Ms Shirley Wong (above) gets up at 5am to put a creative touch to her lunch, such as cutting seaweed to make the image of a geisha on her rice and using different food items to create the Totoro meal.
Ms Shirley Wong (above) gets up at 5am to put a creative touch to her lunch, such as cutting seaweed to make the image of a geisha on her rice and using different food items to create the Totoro meal.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Ms Shirley Wong gets up at 5am to put a creative touch to her lunch, such as cutting seaweed to make the image of a geisha on her rice and using different food items to create the Totoro meal (above).
Ms Shirley Wong gets up at 5am to put a creative touch to her lunch, such as cutting seaweed to make the image of a geisha on her rice and using different food items to create the Totoro meal (above).PHOTO: SHIRLEY WONG
Ms Stephanie Er uploads photos of her baby daughter Ara Chi on Instagram as a photo diary of her childhood.
Ms Stephanie Er uploads photos of her baby daughter Ara Chi on Instagram as a photo diary of her childhood.PHOTO: STEPHANIE ER
Ms Stephanie Er uploads photos of her baby daughter Ara Chi (both above) on Instagram as a photo diary of her childhood.
Ms Stephanie Er uploads photos of her baby daughter Ara Chi (both above) on Instagram as a photo diary of her childhood.PHOTO: STEPHANIE ER
A post (above) by Mr Shitij Nigam and Ms Arti Batavia shows an elderly woman with the caption: “This is my latest shirt, very fashionable! Aunty look good, right or not?”
A post (above) by Mr Shitij Nigam and Ms Arti Batavia shows an elderly woman with the caption: “This is my latest shirt, very fashionable! Aunty look good, right or not?”PHOTO: HUMANS OF SINGAPORE
A post by Mr Shitij Nigam and Ms Arti Batavia (both above) shows an elderly woman with the caption: “This is my latest shirt, very fashionable! Aunty look good, right or not?”
A post by Mr Shitij Nigam and Ms Arti Batavia (both above) shows an elderly woman with the caption: “This is my latest shirt, very fashionable! Aunty look good, right or not?”PHOTO: HUMANS OF SINGAPORE

From food to cute babies, Singaporeans are posting up a storm on Instagram and pulling in thousands of followers with feel-good content. SundayLife! checks out a few interesting ones

Bento artist

While most people are fast asleep at 5am, Shirley Wong is up cooking, chopping and carving.

Not content with throwing together a quick salad or sandwich to take to work, the 33-year-old sets aside two hours every morning to painstakingly cook a full bento meal (a single-portion takeout common in Japanese cuisine) and style it into cute characters to photograph for her Instagram account, littlemissbento.

"After I make it, I'm the one who has to eat it.

I think everything through so that the elements work together and everything tastes good."

MS SHIRLEY WONG, bento artist

From rice that is dyed blue and shaped into cartoon character Doraemon, to soba noodles arranged to look like Winnie the Pooh, she has done it all - much to the delight of her nearly 66,000 Instagram followers.

Her interest was sparked in 2011 when, after 41/2 years as a contemporary dancer, she made a career switch to a corporate nine-to-five job as a manager.

The lack of food options at her new workplace and a desire to find a new creative outlet saw her decorating her daily packed lunch. "Creating cute bento sets became a creative channel for me," says the performing arts graduate. "I enjoyed thinking up new ways to style my food every day."

The fan of Japanese pop culture started out shaping simple rice balls into characters or cutting out her vegetables into shapes and soon became hooked. "I research new techniques and practise until I get it right. I am trying out recipes for different cuisines and venturing into new food categories such as baked goods," she says.

At the insistence of friends, she started a blog documenting her work in 2011, followed by a Facebook page the next year. But when she opened an Instagram account last year, it got the attention of malls and corporate clients which invited her to hold bento- making workshops for their customers and employees.

She is married to an engineer and has no children yet. These days, she is almost methodical with her process. Any inspiration - from the weather to a cute cartoon character - is quickly documented on her mobile phone so that she can reference it later.

Each creation is sketched out beforehand, making it easier for her to decide which techniques and ingredients to use to make a balanced meal.

"After I make it, I'm the one who has to eat it," she says with a laugh. "I think everything through so that the elements work together and everything tastes good."

She moulds rice, bread or soba noodles into the bodies and faces of her cartoon characters and uses intricately cut vegetables or seaweed to accent their facial expressions and clothes. To pull the whole meal together she uses cooked meats including beef, eggs and salmon, which serve as a colourful backdrop for her designs.

And though she has tricky techniques such as seaweed carving down pat, she is not one to coast on her social media fame.

She puts up a new photograph every day - even when she is on holiday - thanks to a reserve of pictures she has built up over the years.

She makes annual trips to Japan to stock up on the latest bento merchandise including lunch boxes, food cutters and customised branding irons, as well as traditional seasonal ingredients such as pickled sakura and white bean paste which she uses in her recipes.

Given her dedication, it is no surprise that publishers Marshall Cavendish asked her to collaborate on a series of cookbooks last year.

Her first book, Kawaii Bento, complete with recipes and illustrated bento assembly instructions, was launched in December last year and sold out its first print run of 2,000 copies in three months.

Her second book, Kawaii Deco Sushi, is set to launch in major bookstores on July 11.

Recently, she was contacted by Sanrio, the Japanese company behind hugely popular characters such as Hello Kitty, to contribute a blogpost.

Her breakfast creation featuring Gudetama (a character which looks like an egg) is slated to be up on their blog next month.

And though her hobby has cost her more than $10,000 and countless hours of sleep, she has no regrets.

"It's a tough commitment but I have no complaints at all," she says with a smile. "It's hard to believe that I've got these great opportunities just by sharing pictures of my lunch."

avarma@sph.com.sg


Eight-month-old star

Ara Chi is barely eight months old, but she is already a mini Instagram star. Her 18,600 fans keep coming back to her account, titled araburr, for the whimsical photo feed, featuring more than 90 posts of Ara in adorable costumes and imaginative scenarios.

From snoozing while dressed like sushi to floating in space as an astronaut, most of the pictures were taken without the baby leaving the comfort of her bed.

Her stay-at-home mother, Ms Stephanie Er, did this as a fun way to pass the time during her 28 days of post-delivery confinement. "I knew I wanted to document her life through photographs but I didn't know what form it would take till after I had her."

Though Ms Er, 31, an avid photographer, has more than 34,800 followers on her own two-year-old lifestyle and fashion-focused Instagram account, pooburr, she wanted her daughter's account to be separate.

"Ara's photos are pure and geared towards simplicity and spreading positivity," she says. "Her account is meant to be a photo diary of her childhood."

And though her project was just a fun way for friends and family to watch Ara grow, international websites from countries such as Brazil, Vietnam and Spain took notice and reposted her pictures - resulting in hundreds of new followers every day.

Her partner, private banker Andy Chi, 30, even had a colleague call from Thailand to ask whether Ara was in fact his daughter.

Ms Er uploads one or two pictures a week, which she puts together using household items such as blankets, ribbons and cut-up pieces of cardboard and felt.

She says her creativity is inspired by the mundane - an interesting pattern or a line from a nursery rhyme - and once she has an idea, she is fixated on putting it together.

"I don't buy special props for the photos. I use stuff around the house so I can put it together quickly and easily," she says.

But she admits that since starting her daughter's account, she is always on the lookout for cute outfits, often shopping on sites such as Etsy for unique clothes and baby costumes.

Ara's Instagram fame has seen brands come a- knocking but Ms Er turns them all down. "The account is my outlet for creativity and is meant to spread happiness. It's not something I'm doing to get free swag," she says.

And true to her commitment to keep things fun and positive, she says she is happy to close the account the day her daughter tells her to.

"She's completely oblivious to everything now, but if she tells me one day that she's not having fun anymore, I'd be the first to shut it down.

"At the end of the day, it's my daughter's life. Her happiness is the most important thing."


Humans of Singapore

Inspired by the wildly successful street photography project, Humans of New York, Singapore's version on Instagram, Humans of Singapore, now boasts more than 12,000 followers and 78,000 Facebook fans.

The original was started by American photographer Brandon Stanton as a blog back in 2010. Its street portraits of New Yorkers, and their raw and resonating stories, took social media by storm.

Management consultant Shitij Nigam, 24, who is single, was taken by Stanton's artistic eye for storytelling and surprised by how much he could relate to the stories of complete strangers on another continent.

He decided to give the project a shot in 2013. "I wanted to celebrate the trials and triumphs of ordinary people and started a Facebook page, Humans of Singapore."

But convincing strangers to be photographed and open up about their lives was tough and he managed, at most, one post a week.

He initially featured his friends to generate content. He then began speaking to strangers, showing them the Facebook account to explain the project if they seemed uncertain. Last year, he started the humansofsingapore Instagram account. To date, it has 444 posts.

Last November, he got a friend, Ms Arti Batavia, 24, to help run the site. They work together to post a photo a day by asking strangers questions such as their biggest regret or their happiest moment.

Their busy work schedules mean they often spend their weekends seeking out and photographing strangers. But both say they are happy to do so.

Ms Batavia, who is single and works as a strategy planner in advertising, says: "There is healthy debate in the comments on our posts."

An interview with a single mother juggling three jobs was shared by thousands and many offered help.

Other viral posts include her heartwarming experience with a deaf ice cream uncle in Aljunied, who thanked her repeatedly with a smile.

Mr Nigam says: "What is amazing is the outpouring of support for people who are not outwardly asking for help. Seeing how eager people want to help a total stranger makes the project very worthwhile."

The project aims to challenge stereotypes. He says: "We hope these pictures and captions help people realise they shouldn't be so quick to judge others at face value. Everyone is fighting his own battles."

They have received offers to collaborate with government agencies, but they say they prefer to curate the content themselves.

"We want the people featured to be from every facet of society. We try to keep the process organic as we don't want to dilute the message," says Ms Batavia.

Mr Nigam adds: "Having a person share intimate details about his life is a very moving experience. People can really surprise you. It's taught me to give everyone the benefit of the doubt."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Instagram darlings'. Print Edition | Subscribe