Meet Ms Tamae Iwasaki, 43, an arts educator at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) and her husband Eitaro Ogawa, 42, a fine art printer at the STPI.

HDB reawakened: Japanese duo lends new perspective on S’pore homes

Public housing flats a ‘hidden treasure’ in visual project chronicling 118 units across three years

By Wong Casandra (

SINGAPORE — A flat left almost devoid of furniture and reserved for poetic musings. Another, a three-room home converted into a “family-friendly” gym, complete with exercise equipment and a glass wall to record one’s fitness routine. Others with corridors jointly decorated by neighbours to usher in festivities.

HDB flats decorated with Singapore flags during National Day. the Photo: Tomohisa Miyauchi

These are just some of the 118 Housing Development Board (HDB) flats — “a lucky number” — that two Singapore permanent residents (PR) from Japan have carefully documented over three years for an upcoming photo book.

The husband-and-wife team has hit several road bumps in their project, but they highlighted their wonder in discovering so many artistic, unique spaces — and discovering cultural differences along the way.

“What really surprised me is that for the couples, wife and husband, they have big wedding photos in their bedrooms,” said Mr Eitaro Ogawa, 42, a fine art printer at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI). “I’ve never seen one in Japan. It’s quite common in Singapore.”

An artist’s HDB flat at Depot Road kept empty for him to concentrate on refining his craft. Photo: Tomohisa Miyauchi

The inspiration behind the book, titled HDB: Homes of Singapore, came about seven to eight years ago when Mr Ogawa and Ms Tamae Iwasaki were considering buying a HDB flat. Some 80 per cent of the resident population live in HDB flats, according to Government figures.

“We didn’t really have a good impression of HDB flats… They looked very rigid and similar to each other, and we were not very sure about living in one of them,” Ms Iwasaki, 43, an arts educator who also works at the STPI, told TODAY.

That all changed when some of their friends, also art teachers, invited them to their renovated HDB flats. The couple was “shocked” that the interiors looked nothing like the exteriors — and that HDB flats can be modified to reflect character, lifestyles and cultures.

Hoping to spread their discovery to a wider public and to dispel misconceptions about the lack of culture in Singapore, they worked with another Japanese transplant to document the interiors of HDB flats.

Japanese couple Tamae Iwasaki and Eitaro Ogawa spoke about the unique flats they saw and their observations during their tour of more than 100 HDB homes. TODAY also followed them as they visited the last flat to be photographed for the book.

The project gave them an excuse to access the insides of various homes, what Mr Ogawa called “hidden treasures of Singapore”.

In Japan, public housing apartments are typically not for sale and can only be rented. Mr Ogawa stressed that they are much smaller than Singapore ones and cannot be renovated. The different languages, cultures and races in the Republic also play a part in enriching living spaces here, he added.

Ms Iwasaki agrees. “We want people to know there is a culture in Singapore and a very good one,” she added.


The couple worked on the project with Mr Tomohisa Miyauchi, 40, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s department of architecture. Mr Miyauchi, who has a background in film-making and has published a book before, took the first photograph for the book three years ago, only a week after meeting the couple at a Japanese exhibition.

The project gave them an excuse to access the insides of various homes, what Mr Ogawa called “hidden treasures of Singapore”.

Leaving Mr Miyauchi in charge of photography, Ms Ogawa and Mr Iwasaki focused on contacting and liaising with the homeowners. The couple, who has been living in Singapore since 2001, reached out to relatives and friends, but occasionally found themselves knocking door to door. The experience has been positive and joyful on the whole, partly because they are from Japan, the couple noted.

A carpenter’s three-room HDB flat, taken in June 2016, at North Bridge Road. Photo: Tomohisa Miyauchi

“I think that (being a foreigner) made it easier, because it’s easy to accept that you are interested in the Singapore culture,” said Mr Ogawa. “Maybe 80 per cent of people that we knocked on the door said okay to come in and shoot on the spot… Some of them took us to hawker centres nearby to introduce their favourite food.”

They started out focusing on artistically-renovated flats but later photographed flats that feature occupants hailing from “different races, different religions, different lifestyles, all kinds of age groups”, with every house they visited to be included in the book in chronological order. In total, they took about 4,000 photos; 1,500 of them were selected to be in the book.

A professional paper maker, who trains for triathlons, converts his three-room-flat in Marine Crescent into a family-friendly gym. Photo: Tomohisa Miyauchi

Said Mr Ogawa: “I think we went to almost every station on the MRT map… Literally on the first page of the book is the first house we visited. So you can kind of join us on the journey. You can actually see two instances of National Days and Chinese New Years!”

During most shoots, they also made it a point to encourage their children to tag along, making the book a joint project and not sacrificing family time.

A family portrait by Hong Kong artist and friend Wilson Shieh greets visitors at their Bukit Panjang HDB flat. Photo: Illiyin Anuwar/TODAY


Like their subjects, the two have created a unique HDB flat to call their own. They bought a “colourful” Bukit Panjang flat from a Malay family and renovated it in 2009. The flat is, in true kampung style, “easy, free and open for anyone to come”.

Mr Ogawa plays a round of strategy board game Go with his daughters. Photo: Illyin Anuwar/TODAY

Most of their furniture are refurbished items dug out from antique shop Tong Mern Sern at 51 Craig Road, where they are regular customers. A gigantic analog clock and a dining table made from a door give their home character.

Creepy crawlies and art pieces. Photo: Illyin Anuwar/TODAY

Postcard-sized artworks from an exhibition called Pameran Poskad — organised by the couple and other artists — line the walls of their abode. Insect exhibit cases, purchased from different parts of the world, are also displayed.

The flag of Singapore is draped under the window of their 4th floor flat.

Photo: Illyin Anuwar/TODAY

They also encourage their children to draw and write on the walls, something they started doing at their old home at Seletar Airbase. They one day plan to paint over them, but it’s not any time soon.

Spotted: Names of family members are written on the wall. Photo: Illyin Anuwar/TODAY

“You can see the physical level of drawings getting higher according to their heights. In a way, we are surrounded by the children’s feelings, sometimes message and pure expression,” said Ms Iwasaki.


The Japanese couple are on schedule for printing in November — if they can find the funding.

In June they turned to crowd-funding website Indiegogo to raise the US$38,000 required to print 2,000 copies of their book. They managed to collect only 77 per cent but called the fundraising “above what we expected”.

Still they remain undeterred about self-publishing the book and are “currently in discussions” with the National Heritage Board for grant money. They also plan to chip in their own savings to make up the remaining amount needed.

They also hope the publicity from the International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, where a selection of their photos is being exhibited till Nov 27, will help spread word of the project.

The 600-page book is not the first to document HDB flats, but it is unusual because it gives readers a glimpse of interiors and how Singaporeans live. In a similar project, a Chinese journalist who moved to Singapore was also fascinated with the public housing blocks. Mr Xu Fugang, from Sichuan, China, self-published The HDB Lifestyle In Singapore in 2015 and focused on residents co-existing in public housing spaces.

A photographer’s HDB flat, taken in May 2013, at Marine Crescent. Photo: Tomohisa Miyauchi

The Japanese couple’s book — which will be in Chinese, Japanese and English — is expected to be available in December from S$65 to S$70 in bookshops like Popular, Kinokuniya, BooksActually and shops in art museums.

“More than just an interest, we believe that this book could become historically important for Singapore,” said Mr Ogawa. “It’s an accumulation of information and people who lived these past 50 years, and all of these is kept inside this book.”

Mr Lai Yui Wai, 45, an architectural draftperson and homeowner of the last flat to be photographed for the book, gave the project similar importance.

“A lot of people find Singapore a bit boring, but actually it is not,” he said. “I think (the book) will inspire more people.”

One thing he finds odd though: “How come it’s not a Singaporean doing it?”

From Oct 5 to Oct 16, pre-orders for both standard and special editions of the book can be placed at

Originally published at