Designer and traveller, Kenn Lam, caught up with us to provide his insights on solo travel, as a young, Singaporean Chinese man, residing in London. 

What’s your profession?

I'm professionally unemployed. Freelancer works too. 

How old are you?

I’m twenty-five.

Tell me a bit about your background?

I'm a Singaporean Chinese man who was raised in Singapore by Western media, and my ethnically-Chinese parents. At the time, Singapore, despite having English as our national language, was culturally Asian. To many of my family and friends, I was a "banana", yellow on the outside, white on the inside. As you can imagine, I struggled with this duality of being for a long time. Over the years, I accepted that I'll always be an outsider, regardless of where I place myself, and that it's ok. This has liberated me to be more curious about other cultures, and by extension, languages. Currently, I can speak basic German, basic Japanese and I've just begun learning Russian!

When did you first decide to travel solo and where did you go?

April 2015. A friend and I were planning on travelling through the Kansai region of Japan; Osaka, Kobe, Okayama, and Naoshima. Things didn't work out and he had to cancel; I saw it as a sign and proceeded with the bookings.

What’s been your greatest achievement whilst travelling?

Well, during my 2015 solo trip through Japan, I realised that I forgot to bring my camera charger. I did some googling and managed to charge my batteries with a dismantled USB cable.

What have you found to be the most challenging part of travelling solo and how did you learn to overcome it?

Perhaps this is a consequence of me being a man, but I never faced any serious hurdles while travelling alone. People were nice to me, I felt relatively safe, and I was able to figure out how to get from A to B (for the most part). Probably the toughest part is that I've become much better at travelling alone than I am with people, so there's this perpetual air of loneliness hovering over me, in spite of the number of people I'm travelling with, or lack thereof.

What’s the weirdest thing that you saw or experienced on your travels, and in which country?

Off the top of my head, it's probably in Copenhagen, Denmark, where there were no card reader turnstiles in their tube system. They had wall-mounted card readers instead, which meant that you could easily get around without paying for your trip. It was baffling to see how much trust the government had in their citizens. This attributed to the conclusion that Copenhagen was too perfect and therefore unsuitable for me, in the long term.

Who was the most inspiring person that you met whilst travelling and why? Can you tell me a bit about them?

Probably my host Gozo Island, Malta. He is an unassuming English old man who has lived in Malta for the past 30 years or so. We'd have breakfast every morning and he'd share his life with me a little bit at a time. He's made furniture for the Queen, rubbed shoulders with music legends, is a close friend of Eric Clapton, knows his whiskies and makes a delicious breakfast. I most admired how, despite his accomplishments, he remains incredibly humble and genuine. He'd complain about guests who'd use their phones as they cook, on how the weather has been rather poor in the past few days and other mundane happenings.

He's rather ordinary for a person whom I felt was quite extraordinary.

What was your best experience with a local and why? Can you tell me a bit about them?

I've had many, but here's one of my favourites; I recently took an impromptu trip to Kaunas, Lithuania, knowing next to nothing about the country. I spoke to the locals and one of them suggested that I visit Kadagių slėnis, a nature reserve east of Kaunas. After an hour of trekking through the beautiful landscape, I followed a small narrow path which led me to a lakeside clearing, where I met this Lithuanian family, consisting of a dad, a son, 2 daughters and a family friend.

I was greeted with a loud and firm "Hello" by the dad, Audrius. He offered me some beer, sandwiches, and shared tips on how to fish. We chatted for an hour or so, and at some point, I mentioned that I was a home chef, which prompted him to invite me to his home for lunch. I ended up cooking for his family and friends with the fish they caught. It was magical. After lunch, Audrius introduced me to all of his neighbours, sharing my life story and art with everyone. I was such an anomaly to them; I'm Asian, but I'm Westernised. I'm a man, but I like being in the kitchen. I travel, but seldom with friends.

I was a foreigner, in every sense of the word.

Afterwards, I joined the family in multiple activities; I cycled with them through the countryside, swam with them in the lake, stayed the night in their house (built by Audrius), and went canoeing with Audrius the next day.

Needless to say, we're still in touch.

Where was your favourite travel destination so far and why?

I try not to rank them as they're all special to me. That being said, I'd probably pick Japan. I've been there 4 times so far and with each trip, I find myself feeling increasingly foreign and local at the same time. It's a hard feeling to describe, but suffice to say, Japan is the home I never lived in.

Where is the next destination you plan to visit? What do you plan to do?

Shanghai, China. I plan to stay there for at least a month, to reclaim the culture I rejected as a kid, brush up on my Mandarin and to work on art at the same time.

How can we make our travels more meaningful in this day and age?

Understand that the internet and social media, in the context of travel, are simply tools to facilitate your interests. Always prioritise your interests and not, eg. the upkeep of your online persona.

How has travel influenced and impacted your life? Would you change this given the chance?

Tremendously. I dare say, my way of being has been defined by it. I've begun placing an emphasis on mobility in my life; I've streamlined my wardrobe to 2 colours; green and black. I pack light, I plan my meals based on my schedule (eg. if I were to travel tomorrow, I'd avoid incredibly spicy foods the night before, as a rule of thumb), I walk a lot more, and all my shoes can be slipped on.

I doubt I'd change any of this to be honest. I regret not getting rid of my flowery wardrobe sooner.

How has solo travel empowered you?

It allows me to be more open-minded and respectful towards others.

If you could journey back to before you first travelled alone, is there anything you know now that you would tell yourself?

Let life happen to you.

Do you have a favourite object that you bought on your travels, and what’s the story behind it?

I don't carry anything interesting on me nowadays, just the essentials. My smartphone is probably my favourite object to travel with; it's probably been keeping me alive through my travels. I did use to bring this Barbie doll head with me whenever I travelled, creating a photo series #kennandbarbie. We're a bit rocky at the moment though.

Photographs taken by Kenn Lam in Flushing, Queens, New York (Sept 2018).

“Flushing is a neighbourhood in Queens that houses an Asian majority of Chinese and Koreans. To call it "confusing" would be a tremendous understatement, as certain streets of the area looked extremely Chinese, and other streets, unmistakably Korean.

Unlike most Chinatowns and Koreatowns I've been to, these weren't Asian-flavoured streets catered towards Western tourists. These were recreations of home, by a tight-knit community of East Asians. I heard that it was completely possible for one to grow up here without ever needing to speak English—and I'm inclined to believe that.”
Kenn Lam.