The UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS of HDB life

A colloquial and affectionate term used by many when referring to the areas below their public housing blocks, DOWNSTAIRS is also the apt title for this Singaporean documentary, directed By Diya Tan, produced By Quek Hui Min & Helmi Ali and photographed by PK Tan.

DOWNSTAIRS marries meaningful and colourful visuals with an audio collage to tell the personal stories of its users. With random and diverse profiles as supporting cast to the protagonist, this high definition short documentary shares anecdotes of community, love, dreams and memories.

Moving from the rustic charms of the old neighbourhoods to the swanky sophistication of the newer estates, it also documents change, in the form of transient meanings that exists between man and space.

DOWNSTAIRS features heartwarming and candid displays of human interaction, sometimes tinged with innocent humour, showing how a space is not just a space but something that is full of life.

With 80% of the Singaporean population living in public housing flats, DOWNSTAIRS is a peek into the nation’s culture and identity.

This work was produced as a final-year project in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Diya Tan, writes:

We called ourselves Brownian Motions, a team of 4 people who came together in as random a fashion as the movement of particles as in the physics theory.

It was the year 2007 and in order to graduate from university, we had to film a short documentary of worthy material. Naïve and only a year away from the adult world of debt repayments and earning one’s keep, if there ever was a chance to do something crazy, it was now.

We were young and idealistic. Armed with a camera, a boom mic and some spare underwear, we were ready to roam every other part of the Earth. Well, all except Singapore.

So we debated and researched extensively on issues in other exotic lands, one of them being the topic of AIDS in China. Like many other discontented Singaporeans, we kept our eyes fixed on the ‘greener pastures’ assuming that there is just nothing in Singapore worth documenting. We only went on to prove ourselves wrong.

In one conversation, someone questioned the perceived lack of Singaporean stories and encouraged us to look out for our own. And so we began considering the subject of architecture in Singapore, an idea brought about by another chance encounter with an architect friend.

The “downstairs” journey started then. Reading a thesis on Singapore’s architecture and how the government had commissioned interior design firms to create an identity for HDB blocks in different areas, we started to explore and look deep within our childhood memories.

“我的家在楼下,楼下是个好地方!” Literally translated, it means “my house belongs downstairs, and downstairs is a good place to be!” I cannot remember where I heard this song, but it’s a familiar tune with a familiar message, and that’s when we realised that HDB blocks in Singapore comes with a public area called the ‘void deck’, which as its name suggests, is a level that is empty.

We started sharing with each other our experiences at the void decks of our homes – the people we met, the Indian ‘mama’ store downstairs at the corner we used to sneak to when our mothers were busy to buy sweets and toys, and the old man who would always sit at the concrete chairs staring into space.

And then there were the Chinese funerals, with their religious chanting and the Malay weddings with the singing and dancing. So much went on in that space we called “downstairs”, the space we walk past every morning to school, every evening from work but which we never really took a second glance at.

Every day, stories were unfolding there, giving meaning to this public space that belongs to an average of 50 households in a HDB block. It intrigued us, how a public space below that many households often seemed to remain empty most of the time, and yet on some occasions, brought about the union of two lovebirds or the teary farewell of a loved one.

Travelling all over Singapore for the next 2 months, we talked to people hanging out at void decks and collected a mural of stories and experiences. Every story had its magic, and every void deck its beauty. Some were dirty and vandalised but these imperfections were something that the residents identified with, that beneath the cracks lies a story to be told.

Armed with these stories, we proceeded to piece together a mosaic of lives intertwined not by contact, but by their shared interest in the void deck. Personal stories, evolving out of the interaction with this public space, that is the heartbeat that drives through our documentary.

We wrapped up our filming with the simple hope that our film would be watched by all Singaporeans, and that the next time they walk past their void deck, they’ll take a second look at this space, so unique to Singapore.

We hope you will enjoy the documentary as much as we enjoyed making it. The eclectic characters, the loving cobbler and his wife, the cheeky kids, and the ‘Aunty’ who keeps the space clean are just a few of the many stories we show.

Downstairs is about space, about lives, about people, about us. Downstairs could be something else for you.

As a companion piece, Paintings, David Gan’s portrait of the repainting of an HDB estate, features beautiful compositions and an unusual take on the subject, making this a standout of the films submitted for our short film competition, WHERE THE HEART IS.

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