SINGAPORE - The dinosaur purse toted by Mrs Lee Hsien Loong at the White House has flown off the shelves, with all 200 pouches sold on Wednesday (Aug 3).
While it may be the first time the public has heard of See Toh Sheng Jie, the 19-year-old designer from Pathlight School, his talent for drawing dinosaurs has been known to Mrs Lee.
She first learnt about the teenager five years ago when MP Denise Phua, who co-founded Pathlight School for autistic children and youth, showed her the teenager's work. "She knows Sheng Jie because of Ms Phua, who showed her a photo of Sheng Jie's dinosaurs," the teenager's father Jason See Toh, 54, told The Straits Times.
Soon after, he said, a dinosaur expert from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore visited Pathlight School, armed with a real-life fossil for the students to view.
Sheng Jie was thrilled to see a real dinosaur fossil up close, said Mr See Toh, who is a taxi driver.
The teenager's artwork sparked a flurry of interest from the public after Mrs Lee was spotted carrying a denim purse emblazoned with white dinosaur silhouettes at a welcome ceremony at the White House on Tuesday (Aug 2, Singapore
time). Mrs Lee was accompanying Prime Minister Lee on an official visit to the United States.
Mrs Lee bought the $14.80 purse from The Art Faculty, a
gallery and store run by Pathlight's parent charity, the Autism Resource Centre, during a fund-raiser last Saturday (July 30). She is an adviser to the centre.
Staff said that Mrs Lee purchased many items designed by Pathlight students - enough to fill a shopping basket - but Pathlight senior vice-principal Loy Sheau Mei has told the media that no one dreamed she would be bringing any of the merchandise on her White House visit.
The sudden media attention came as a surprise to the family, said Mr See Toh.
Sheng Jie's older brother, a 21-year-old full-time national serviceman, was taken aback when he found the media in their Yishun flat after booking out of camp on Wednesday night.
"The first thing is, we're shocked," said Mr See Toh, describing the family's reaction when photographs began circulating. "It's an amazing surprise."
Sheng Jie's mother Wendy Chua, 52, a residents' committee manager, chimed in: "And now we feel very proud!"
The family showed Sheng Jie media reports on the dinosaur purse and explained to him that his art had been on display in the US and was becoming popular in Singapore. The teenager was happy, even though he may not fully understand the significance of it, said his father.
Mr See Toh revealed that Sheng Jie has been fascinated with dinosaurs since watching the Disney animated movie, Dinosaur, when he was three years old.
He began sculpting models of dinosaurs using Blu-Tack, and insisted on checking out reference books about the prehistoric creatures during trips to the library. He soon had facts and figures memorised, and now translates that information into detailed drawings and notes in his many sketchbooks.
During the interview, he was sculpting miniature dinosaur figurines from modelling clay while his parents spoke to The Straits Times.
Teachers at Pathlight School spotted his talent and recommended him for the inaugural cohort of the school's Artist Development Programme (ADP). He has been a student at the school in Ang Mo Kio for the past decade, switching from the academic track to the vocational track after Primary 4.
The ADP, which provides students and alumni with weekly craft lessons and professional showcase opportunities, has grown from eight students in 2011 to 36 students today. Participants sell their artwork through The Art Faculty.
The Art Faculty has cleared all its stock of the dinosaur purse, and new inventory will not arrive for another two months, according to the homepage of its online store.
However, the same design is available in yellow leather as a coin pouch retailing at $28.90 or travel pouch selling for $48.
The denim pouch is also available in two other designs from ADP participants - a floral pattern by 12-year-old Jolie Lim and a dragon drawing by Tia Anasha, 16.
Madam Chua said she hopes that Sheng Jie's moment in the limelight will encourage the public to learn how to work with and support autistic adults in society.
Agreeing, her husband added that he hopes members of the public can understand why youth like Sheng Jie may act in ways incomprehensible to others, and show more patience with interacting with them.
Mr See Toh told The Straits Times that the family does worry about Sheng Jie's future after he graduates from Pathlight next year, although he has been learning independent living skills in school and earns royalties from the sale of his designs.
"We are not concerned about the royalties so much as him having a place to stay and be supported," he said.
The family appreciates The Art Gallery's Saturday workshops, where Sheng Jie can relax in an art studio with fellow ADP participants.
Mr See Toh and his wife hope they can thank Mrs Lee in person for celebrating the achievements of autistic people.
He said: "There is a National Day walk in Ang Mo Kio. If Mrs Lee is there with the Prime Minister, we will thank her personally."
Correction note: An earlier version of the article referred to Ms Loy Sheau Mei as the principal of Pathlight School. She is the senior vice-principal. We are sorry for the error.