Yishun retiree Or Beng Kooi invited to create and exhibit his latest toy tower at Chong Pang CC

Mr Or Beng Kooi with the latest iteration of his toy tower.
Mr Or Beng Kooi with the latest iteration of his toy tower.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Yishun's unofficial community artist Or Beng Kooi has come up with the latest iteration of his toy tower, this time with the authorities on board.

The 77-year-old retiree and long-time Yishun resident was invited by Nee Soon GRC MP K. Shanmugam and Chong Pang Community Club (CC) to create the installation.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Mr Shanmugam, who is Law and Home Affairs Minister, said he noted Mr Or's artistic interest.

"To give him an opportunity, we asked if he will construct and exhibit the toy tower during Chinese New Year," Mr Shanmugam said.

The installation, which is on the second floor of the CC, went on display last Tuesday (Jan 16) and will be there until March 3.

For his latest effort, Mr Or has toned down his trademark cheeky style - such as topless dolls and smoking Buddhas - to suit a wider audience.

The former contractor said he had to abide by just one restriction - not to display religious figurines.

 
 
 
 

"The authorities told me I can't use deities because people from different religions will be at the CC. It makes sense, so to replace these figurines, I spent about $100 buying some toys from shops like the Value Dollar Store," he said.

A stuffed dog - a nod to the upcoming Chinese New Year, which is the Year of the Dog - is the centrepiece of his display, which also features vintage toy cars, plastic flowers, Singapore flags, and figurines such as Captain America and characters from The Little Mermaid like Ursula and King Triton.

Mr Or created his first tower in late 2016 at the void deck of Block 108 Yishun Ring Road, where he lives. But it was removed last February after the authorities, worried about fire safety, stepped in.

The tower, which featured about 200 knick-knacks donated by the public and collected by Mr Or, had gained some fans.

For instance, artist Shirley Soh, who was part of the 2013 edition of the Singapore Biennale, said Mr Or's original tower reflected the material culture of Singapore and was an example of ground-up art.

In a similar case in March last year, a 25-year-old fine arts student who covered the staircase on the 20th storey of her Housing Board block in Jalan Rajah with gold foil was told by the Jalan Besar Town Council that her work was unauthorised and not permissible under its by-laws. She removed it shortly after.

Mr Or had a chance to build a second tower when theatre practitioner Li Xie, 45, seeing that he had no outlet to express his creativity, offered him space at The Substation, an independent arts centre in Armenian Street, last November. Mr Or said he was paid about $1,500 for the project.

The authorities said Mr Or's original toy tower posed a significant fire risk. A resident had also raised the same concern.

Mr Shanmugam said: "Mr Or was told that Singapore Civil Defence Force rules prevent such items from being permanently placed along void decks."

Any installation or addition to a neighbourhood must satisfy regulations set out by the agencies and the authorities involved.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "For example, it depends whether the items are a fire hazard, safety hazard or whether they restrict access... also, if other residents don't object. If these conditions are satisfied, then they can seek HDB's and the town council's permissions."

Mr Or said Mr Shanmugam met him late last year and invited him to recreate his tower. Mr Or expressed his appreciation for the gesture and said he is glad to be able to start the year on a good note.

"I get a sense of satisfaction when I see people stopping to look at my creation," Mr Or said.

Giving the tower the thumbs-up last Thursday was Yishun resident and retired businessman Teddy Tan, 76.

"It's a unique arrangement that catches the eye. It's fantastic," said Mr Tan, who was snapping photos.