The 80s are undeniably back. As the fanny packs and baggy jeans creep into our social media feed more and more, we’re reminded of another group of people who thrived in the era – fearless rebels from the skate punk subculture. Seduced by an anti-establishment attitude and speed, William Chan, one quarter of art and design collective Phunk Studio and owner of TMRRW STUDIO, was one of the many who made up the skateboarding community of the 80s. We speak to him to find out how spending his formative years evading police on his skateboard has shaped a philosophy he lives up to a few decades later.
What is it about skateboarding culture that you found attractive?
In the 80s, everything looked very mundane in Singapore so it was a form of escapism for me. The idea of being in California with long hair and a carefree attitude was more interesting to me. Once I dived into it, a whole world opened up to me.
(Photo source: Lion City Skaters)
Were there many others who were similarly into skateboarding?
There were a lot of foreign cultures that were taking root in Singapore in the 80s, but not a lot of people were into it. I started skateboarding in 1979. When I was seven, I saw two expat kids skating and told my dad, “I want that thing”. Then in the 80s, I found out that you can do tricks. I would frequent Times Bookshop on the weekends to read magazines like TransWorld Skateboarding, Freestylin’ (BMX) and Surfing. I’d read and try to imitate it.
We got to know the rest of the community as there were only a few places to skate at: Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, Orchard MRT station before Ion Shopping Mall was built, and around City Hall MRT station. I still remember how I learnt to do an ollie. The first time I saw someone do it was on the TV show Police Academy 5, and I slowed down the VHS to figure out how. When my friend and I were out one day, we saw this skateboarder doing ollies and walked up to get him to show us how he did that.
How old were you when you fully gave yourself to the skate culture?
Maybe when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was constantly thinking about it. I would either play metal music in my band or dress like how they did. I would go to Michiko Sports in old Paragon and Wisma Atria. A skateboard was ridiculously expensive back then – it cost close to S$400.
I saved up for a long time and could only buy a set of wheels. When Spitfire opened, things got a bit cheaper so we started buying stuff from there. As a kid, I would sit outside and go skate for half a day, then come back and get free stickers. That was the agreed meeting point because there were no mobile phones.
What was the first item you owned that cemented your identity as a skateboarder?
This pair of Vans Sk8-Hi I’m wearing in the same colour way (as shown above). I remember Steve Caballero wearing them so I got them. I had this pair for almost 11 years. They were really thrashed – they were falling apart so much I tried to use glue to mend a hole – and my wife made me throw it away.
What about this band you were in? What music did you play?
When I was in secondary school I started a metal hardcore band playing lots of trash and skate metal music. We played gigs at Lasalle College of the Arts where I went to after. Ironically, I was the only skater in the band. I skated actively between ’85 to ’90 and after sort of skated casually. The idea of being in a band with long hair performing on a stage was very enticing as a teenager and it was good for attracting girls too. My goal in life when I was 16 was to leave secondary school, grow my hair long, get my ears pierced, get a tattoo and just skate. That was really what I wanted and I’ve sort of had long hair since.
What about 80s music do you relate to?
The music was a lot angrier. If you listen to metal bands now they sound like pop music. It really related to my teenage angst when I felt like I you want to kick somebody. It was a form of release doing something different.
How did this lifestyle translate to what you were doing in school with design?
Playing music made me more receptive to ideas. Back then design was very straightforward: my lecturer would show me mooncake boxes or annual reports as examples of design. I didn’t want to do that, it was so boring. Being in a band, I wanted to do album covers and merchandise like T-shirts. It opened another avenue that didn’t exist then and showed us there was more to design than mooncake boxes. Later on, I met all the founders of Phunk Studio and we did all the stuff we wanted to do.
Phunk Studio was started as a reaction to what we didn’t want to do. It was what drove us to focus on pop culture and doing things differently. Even now, as a middle-aged adult, that urge to disrupt makes me do what I want to do. Without this part of me, I’d probably do what makes a lot of money instead of what I want.
A lot of your current work is influenced by the 80s or 90s. Why?
As people who’ve spent half of our lives in the 80s and another half in the 90s, even the things we talk about are very influenced by that time. As teenagers, it was the best time of our lives. We had no responsibilities and could do whatever we wanted.
It’s the reason why pop culture from the 80s and 90s is the foundation of Phunk Studio’s work. For example, we redid this Hong Kong TV show with Andy Lau called Condor Heroes, which I have watched 20 times, by drawing ourselves in that old mythical Chinese style but in skate clothes.
What else did you take away from it?
Skateboarding was banned for a few years. Even though we were chased by the police all the time, we would still skate. In Singapore especially, you feel different being the only few people who skate and you develop an outsider mentality. There’s still a part of me that’s subversive in a way.
Do you think this streak of rebellion extends to your peers?
For me, skateboarding for me is a very individualistic sport. That’s why usually skateboarders don’t like soccer, but there are some exceptions. We hate uniformity or cheering for a team. Last time there were no contests; how good you wanted to be was how hard you wanted to push yourself. This mentality when translated into we do: our work is not for people to appreciate but more for us to feel good about it. It’s a very teen-like mentality.
I can tell you that for skateboarder friends, all of us don’t have driving license till this day. You know why? Back then it was the norm to have the 5Cs: cash, credit card, car, condominium and country club membership. I don’t want to be that kind of person so even at 43-years-old, I still can’t drive. I could get a license but I don’t subscribe to that nonsense so I made my wife get a car and drive instead.
Words by Lu Yawen Photos by Chooee