New Digs

Moved by nostalgia

Every piece in the minimalist- meets-industrial home of film-maker Royston Tan has sentimental value

In the morning, the leaves of a large angsana tree cast dancing shadows across the floor.

Award-winning film-maker Royston Tan, 39, best known for his films 15 (2003), 4:30 (2005) and 881 (2007), sits by a row of windows on a dove-grey sofa, watching the sunlight move to the sounds of a Billie Holiday record playing from a vintage Precedent TV console.

"Sometimes when I feel unmotivated, when I ask myself, 'Why are you still creating?', nature casts this light and this," he says, gesturing to the shadows and the curated space around him, "with some music in the background, gets me going again. This is cinema to me."


It was the tree - one of five that line this stretch of Yio Chu Kang Road - which convinced the bachelor to take a leap of faith and purchase the apartment off a plan four years before. He hoped its leaves would rustle outside his window, like they did when he was a boy growing up on a Lorong Chuan pig farm, the son of a second-generation pig farmer.

When Tan moved into the fifth- floor 124 sq m private apartment in December, after three months of renovations that cost $70,000, he was happy to find that his gamble had paid off. He declined to reveal how much he paid for his apartment.

Like his films, his apartment is furnished with nostalgia. Next to his sofa is a bubblegum-pink rotary payphone like the one he saw in his neighbourhood coffee shop as a boy, with a Singapore Telecom logo faintly visible and the original five-prong plug still intact.

A vintage TV console takes pride of place in the living room of film-maker Royston Tan’s home.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

It sits beneath a weathered, painted sign for Xin Cai Hong hair salon where Tan befriended the owner and filmed his documentary Old Romances (2012).

Across the room, a vintage wood- and-glass cupboard houses his collection of vintage trinkets and toys, including a battery-powered police car he received for his first birthday, still in its original box. In the entryway, a pair of cinema seats from The Capitol Theatre, re-upholstered with their original 1940s fabric sourced by a friend in Bristol, is the oldest piece in the home.

Tan designed the space with interior designer Raymond Seow of Free Space Intent, who had designed his previous home and studio in an old shophouse in Katong.

Tan asked him to recreate the grey walls and lofty ceilings of the former studio, while also creating a simple and cosy space that would highlight his collection of vintage furniture and knick-knacks. So Mr Seow installed smooth concrete screed walls and removed the false ceiling to reveal about 4m of raw, exposed brick, silver ducting and concrete beams.

"I love it, but when someone from the older generation visits, he will say, 'Is it you have no money for renovation? When it rains, is it going to drip?' They want to help me cover it up," says Tan with a laugh.

The renovation's biggest challenge was removing the apartment's new compressed marble floors - "they were too glossy for the look we were going for," he says - and replacing them with concrete textured tiles.

The result is a stylish minimalist- meets-industrial interior, the perfect canvas for Tan's vintage decor. He estimates there are more than 150 vintage pieces spread across two rooms in a storage facility in Bedok and another room in his parents' four-room HDB flat in Serangoon North.

I love the quiet, the sunlight and the shadows. Every day here feels like a Sunday morning.

FILM-MAKER ROYSTON TAN who is happiest sitting on his sofa or on his patio and enjoying the lush view from his home in Yio Chu Kang

Every piece has sentimental value and Tan will rotate them in his apartment every few months, "so it doesn't look like a museum", he says.

He adds that he aligns his selection with the changing seasons he learnt to love while travelling overseas.

Now, in "spring", his home's fresh flowers and decor are light greens, blues and pastels. In a few weeks, as spring turns to summer, he will switch the decor for warmer, brighter colours of orange and red.

Some special mementos, such as a framed poster for his film 4:30, designed by President's Design Award winner Larry Peh - they have been friends since they studied together at Zhonghua Secondary School - will remain.

As will a work by Singapore artist Elton Goh, who has repainted the canvas four times since first presenting Tan with the painting in 2009. Every new layer corresponds with a momentous change in Tan's life and this, the fifth and last layer of swimming golden koi, was painted in honour of his new home.

Now, as he settles into the space, Tan looks forward to honing his green thumb, a trait he gleaned from his father. He spends hours tending to a small garden of wild dill, asparagus fern, mint and a pomegranate tree, "an old-school plant that reminds me of my parents", he says, on a windowsill beside his desk.

Upstairs, on the patio which extends via glass doors from his simply decorated bedroom, he will soon install a vertical garden, now being nurtured by Greenology vertical garden specialists.

He feels at peace living here in his sanctuary which, for the first time in his life, he owns.

Happiest sitting on his sofa or on his patio, proudly enjoying the view, he says: "I love the quiet, the sunlight and the shadows. Every day here feels like a Sunday morning."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'Moved by nostalgia'. Print Edition | Subscribe