After completing its international tour, we are delighted to say that TIONG BAHRU is now online.

Follow our Facebook page, here.

Check out an interview with Joe and Christine, recorded at the Tiong Bahru market just after filming was completed.

In the interview, Joe and Christine talk about the film competition WHERE THE HEART IS, where we called for 90 second films looking at ideas of place and memory. We had a remarkable response – check out the entries to the competition, here.

And check out this short film, featuring the beautiful images of the production by Samanatha Tio and Alecia Neo, accompanied by the original TIONG BAHRU soundtrack by Kavin Hoo.

Boo Junfeng on the memories of SANDCASTLE

by Ng Yi-Sheng

Boo Junfeng had already established himself in Singapore as an award-winning short filmmaker when he made his first feature film, Sandcastle. The film proved very popular on the film festival circuit, premiering at Cannes in May 2010, and playing at festivals in Pusan, London and Toronto amongst others, while at home it did respectable business, and was warmly received by audiences.

He was awarded Singapore’s Young Artist Award in 2009, and has just won the Singapore Youth Award.

Junfeng is also one of the key figures behind Pink Dot, Singapore’s annual celebration of the freedom to love of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in Singapore.

Ng Yi-Sheng interviewed this young director about the ideas and process of making his films, upon the film’s release last year.

NYS: How did you the idea for Sandcastle come about?

BJF: Well, I was first inspired by the idea of memory, primarily from observing my grandmother who was suffering from dementia. Towards the end of her life, she lived with my family for a few years. It was actually quite a painful period, because you know with dementia there are all these side-effects: it’s not just about memory, it’s also hallucinations and paranoia, so there were moments in her delirium when she basically turned into a different person.

So it was quite an emotional period. I thought that I could channel some of that into the work. I wanted to explore the idea of memory: there’s this boy who is observing his grandmother, but at the same time he’s discovering his family’s past, and he finds out that his father used to be involved in student movements in the ‘50s and ‘60s. This is information that he never knew about his dead father. So it’s a parallel between personal memory and social memory, and how we sometimes voluntarily or involuntarily forget things that have happened.

NYS: Who are the stars?

BJF: I worked with non-professional actors. The boy in the lead role is Joshua Tan: he’s a bassist in the local band Firefight. And yeah, I think he did an amazing job: I’m hearing a lot of good things about his performance, and I’m personally very pleased, because he had absolutely no acting experience before, not on screen, not on stage.

What I felt was very interesting about him, why he was chosen, was that he had a very contemplative quality about him that fits the character very well. And being a non-actor, the character needs to be quite similar with who the actor is.

[But] he also never spoke a word of Mandarin – he’s a typical ACS (Anglo-Chinese School) boy who gave up on Chinese long ago, but his role is mainly in Mandarin. And he had to listen and communicate with his Hokkien-speaking grandparents in the film, while he himself is Cantonese. He was struggling with language a lot, but he was very diligent in remembering his lines. You can see his script just scribbled with hanyu pinyin almost entirely. It motivated me very much when I saw that he was so into it.

NYS: Tell me about your locations.

BJF: Well, one significant space is the shoreline, the beach. I was inspired since Alfian Sa’at’s Katong Fugue to explore the idea of the shoreline and what it could represent. And I’ve always been quite intrigued by the idea that the whole of Marine Parade and the Upper East Coast area is reclaimed land, so basically the place that you lived in never used to exist, and the place you’re standing on is the sea. So in the film the shoreline represents the threshold, the furthest point this boy’s father and the boy himself were willing to walk towards their ideology, their convictions.

And among the more interesting spaces, there’s one house that we found that’s really interesting. (The boy moves in with his grandparents, and he lives in this house.) It’s a house in Katong that no one lives in because there used be an old couple who lived there, and the family who owns the house refuse to do anything with it. So they’ve left the place as kind of a time capsule. They never moved the furniture: everything there is as it was then the old couple passed away. From then on, everything there, it stays. So it’s like the childhood place of this family.

What makes it even more interesting is that it’s a semi-detached house: it’s a single-story semi-detached house, definitely pre-war. So right next to it, the neighbours tore down their house and rebuilt this three storey ultra-modern-looking house: it’s three storeys with these glass window panels.

It’s such an interesting juxtaposition. You actually see time when you look at those two houses put together. And this was where Fann Wong and Christopher Lee filmed The Wedding Game – so that’s like a commercial film house, and ours is the independent film house!

Unfortunately, because of the construction that happened next door, a lot of walls and its pillars are cracking in the house we shot in, and the family had to put up braces to reinforces the columns and the beams. But it just had so much character; it was the perfect location, it’s a beautiful space.

NYS: It’s a real contrast with the present day, I guess.

BJF: Well, I didn’t state it explicitly in the film, but it’s actually set in the late ‘90s. For a boy to have a father who was involved in his activities in the ‘50s, it would have to be set in like the ‘90s lah, but I pushed it as far as I could, so it was 1999. It was an interesting era because it was the dawn of the Internet, and as we all know now the Internet has revolutionised a lot of things, but at that point it was the start of it.

The production designer was quite obsessive with making sure that things, like the props and the technology that the characters used were from the ‘90s. And then you realised, 1999 actually didn’t seem like such a long time ago, but it’s been 11 years, and actually a lot of things have changed.

We couldn’t set anything at a bus stop for example, because the bus stops have changed. We shot in Sengkang, and we had to look for HDB lifts without the glass panel, which were quite difficult to come by, actually. Playgrounds that are old enough, void decks that are old enough… These are things we could control lah.

Unfortunately there are things which might give 2009 away, because of traffic – even though we got prop cars that were made in 1999. As you know, no cars in Singapore are more than ten years old, so if you look carefully, you’ll see some of the cars don’t fit. We’re not a big budget film, so we couldn’t afford to clear a street.

Also talking about spaces, there are a few scenes in Malaysia. We actually we had to shoot a shot of the Causeway connecting Singapore and Malaysia from a high angle, so that we actually see the physical connection between the two countries. This was an important element in the film.

NYS: You didn’t have to Photoshop anything for that clip?

BJF: Everything on the other side of the Causeway looked okay [like it was still set in the ‘90s]! But I think Johor is beautiful.

I mean, if you look at the film, Johor is a lot more cinematic, because it has character, and things are not ten years old or younger. So you point a camera in Johor, and there is a certain quality, there’s a certain character lah, which is very beautiful. In Singapore it’s not easy to find great angles, and you know how in Johor or a lot of other places you have these beautiful electric cables that hang, and things there’s texture to everything? But here everything is just whitewashed, you know. It’s a characteristic of Singapore, lah. But it doesn’t look as pretty.

NYS: The dancer Bobbi Chen acted for you as well, right?

BJF: Bobbi plays En [the male protagonist]’s new girlfriend. She’s a character who moves in next to En and she’s a new immigrant from China, and so is her father. As the film deals with the idea of time, it also deals with the idea of new immigrants and old immigrants: that Chinese Singaporeans are essentially all immigrants. It addresses a little bit of the heritage of Singapore.

NYS: She’s great, isn’t she? I worked with her on an ARTS FISSION piece.

BJF: She’s amazing. I tell you when she walked down the Croisette in Cannes all dressed up, she looks like, I mean, she’s a movie star, you know. She was a major hit in Cannes. Yah. She looks amazing. And we needed a girl like that for En to have his sexual awakening.

But Bobbi is a really sweet girl and very very professional. I mean, I would consider her a non-professional actor, but she did very well too. And of course I definitely needed a girl from China lah, to play this role. She’s a naturalised Singaporean now, she’s been here for many years, but her accent and world view and many things are what the character has.

NYS: I’m sure the Mandarin comes a bit more naturally to her.

BJF: Language also plays a big role in the film. It’s a generational thing: between the grandparents, they speak in Hokkien; mother and son speak Mandarin, and then En, the son, and his friends speak English. I think language is can really define how the generations of Singaporeans have lived.

NYS: By the way, I’m sorry I missed that event last year, when you told us to come dressed to “party like it’s 1999”.

BJF: It wasn’t an event lah, it was a shoot. We just had to fill a club. We shot it at Play, a medium-sized club, but it wasn’t easy to fill also, so we just called out to people to come for one afternoon and just have fun lah, and dress like it’s the Millennium countdown.

And people were very sporting: they came, my brother’s friends came, people on Facebook came. We managed to gather about 100 people actually, which I think was quite a feat considering that no one was paid and they had to spend a few hours there. But it was fun, it was fun. I think some of them went overboard. When they screamed, I asked my crew: “Did we serve them alcohol?” (We didn’t!).

Actually, you know what we realised? It wasn’t so much what they wore. T-shirt and jeans were very ‘90s, just like now; it was more the cutting [that was distinctive], but in a film you can’t really see that. It was actually more about hairstyle. And we couldn’t do much about hairstyle – there was only one makeup artist who was also doing hair. So the people in the foreground, we would just give them Armani cuts and centre partings.

NYS: Let’s go back to your older films for a moment. I noticed that you’re like Royston: a lot of your shorts are about places: Katong Fugue, Tanjong Rhu(Editor: Read Yi-Sheng’s interview with filmmaker Royston Tan about his recent Old Places project here.)

BJF: Changi Murals, there’s Bedok JettyStranger is about Little India. And Keluar Baris has a whole sequence dedicated to the National Stadium. (Editor: See also, Jacen Tan’s tribute to the National Stadium, demolished in 2010, here.)

So like I said, spaces are important to me, because the places that have character, the places that have stories to tell, the story will always belong to those spaces. Of course, you know, the themes can be universal, but if you find the right space to set your scene at, it gives the situation depth. It’s like another character in the film.

Katong Fugue of course is based on Alfian’s play, but it’s also about how this boy is trapped in his own room with his music, and his mother is threatened, in a completely separate space, listening to that music.

For Keluar Baris, it’s what the National Stadium means to this boy who subscribed to the national ideology that is presented every year at the National Day Parade until he went to Europe. So he comes back being a bit more cynical and questioning, and starts to question things. So how this space, the National Stadium, where 60,000 people at a time celebrated national identity, how a space so concrete, so strong, a really sturdy building, is going to come down soon.

For Stranger, it’s also about a boy… Actually, when I was listing the synopsis for the short film screening, I realised that so many of the synopses start with “A boy returns”, and it’s always about some space.

So for Stranger, it’s about this boy who goes to Little India on the eve of Deepavali, feeling like a foreigner in his own country, while appreciating the culture and the sights, the sounds. I mean if you’ve been to Little India on Deepavali eve, it’s totally overwhelming: people are dancing in the streets, making noise. He feels like he can totally immerse in that culture, but at the same time, he feels like the culture is not his culture. So it is that estrangement from your own homeland.

And of course Tanjong Rhu lah. It’s a whole stretch of reclaimed land again. And it’s precisely because it was reclaimed that these men went there [to cruise for sex], because it has very strange vegetation there, enough cover and yet at the same time open enough for moonlight. So it’s a very unique space that attracted these men to go there.

NYS: Back to Sandcastle. What have reactions been like so far?

BJF: It was very good. I mean, this being my first feature film, the reception of it was way better than what I had expected. And the great thing about being in the Critics’ Week in Cannes is that there are only seven films selected each year, so they give each film a lot of attention, and the reviews were good.

Most of the festival goers at Cannes are industry people, so they consist of the buyers, the reviewers, the journalists, the exhibitors, distributors. So it is very rare for the film to be shown to the public.

But for Critics’ Week they have this outreach programme where they show the film in the outskirts of Cannes to the local French cinephiles, and these people come with families, and there are retired couples, and many of them came up to me and they felt like there are so many themes in the film they could relate to. There was this old lady who was in tears, trembling, and feeling like she’s just seen parts of her life re-enacted in Asia. I mean, it’s a lovely lovely feeling, and really, that is why I love making movies. It’s for that kind of cultural exchange, to tell a story from here, but with themes that are universal, so that different people from different cultures are able to appreciate it. (Editor: Sandcastle also screened at film festivals in London, Toronto, Hanoi, Vancouver, Hong Kong and Pusan).

NYS: Any last things you want to tell the blog readers?

BJF: I’m really looking forward to hearing the responses from the Singaporean audience, because you know interestingly, all my films other than Tanjong Rhu have premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival, so they’ve always shown here before they’ve gone elsewhere.

We had a press screening and I’m hearing good things, so I’m very happy. [Former student activist] Fong Swee Suan was there with his wife, so I was actually quite nervous in the morning, ‘cos to think that someone who’d been through all this was at the screening. But [his son] Otto just SMSed me and said they loved it.

For me, it’s history. You know? Honestly, there was a line in the film which we took out, where the grandmother asked the grandson, “What the hell does Communism even mean?” Because in this day and age, like, we are like showing China’s sixtieth anniversary film [The Great Cause of China’s Foundation], that huge propaganda film that was released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party. And it was released here.

It’s all history, right? In this day and age, what exactly is wrong about talking with this? There’s no political agenda. It’s just an innocent question.


Sandcastle received widespread coverage in the media in Singapore during its 5 week run, particularly in the Chinese-language newspapers, with a number of articles reflecting on the film’s themes appearing. The film was released on a single-print and did well, attracting an audience that crossed age and language boundaries. It played at leading festivals around the world, and is now available on DVD.

Junfeng recently directed a short film for Pink Dot, which became an internet phenomenon, being seen by almost 250,000 viewers. He is currently working on the script for his second feature, amongst a number of other projects, including the multimedia work for a Theatreworks piece due in September. He is based in Singapore, and will continue to make films there for the foreseeable future, being committed to telling his country’s stories. You can follow his work at his blog, here.

Listen to an interview with Junfeng on London Huayu radio, here.

Visit the Sandcastle website here.

Read Yi-Sheng’s account of his family’s connection with the Tiong Bahru area, here.

Read Yi-Sheng’s interview with filmmaker Royston Tan, here. 


Boo Junfeng is one of Singapore’s most prolific young filmmakers. Since 2005 his short films have won several awards at the Singapore International Film Festival, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Special Jury Prize, Special Achievement Award and twice for Best Film. He was the first recipient of the McNally Award for Excellence in the Arts – the valedictorian honour of LASALLE College of the Arts – won the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council of Singapore in 2009 and is the latest recipient of the Singapore Youth Award.

Trained in film schools in Singapore and Spain, his works often centre on themes of alienation, kinship, love and sexuality. His short films, as well as his segment in the omnibus feature film, Lucky 7, have won him acclaim at numerous film festivals, including Berlin International Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam and Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. Sandcastle is his first feature film.

Junfeng is also one of the key figures behind Pink Dot, Singapore’s annual celebration of the freedom to love of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in Singapore.


Ng Yi-Sheng is a poet, playwright, journalist, critic, fiction writer and minor activist. He writes about history, sexuality and the development of the arts in Singapore, and has collaborated with numerous local theatre and dance companies through art-making and creative documentation.

He won the Singapore Literature Prize for his poetry collection “last boy”, and is also the author of “Eating Air”and the best-selling “SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century”. He’s currently co-editing “GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose”, which will be released later this year.

He blogs at http://lastboy.blogspot.com

Read Yi-Sheng’s account of his family’s connection with the Tiong Bahru area, here.

Images of Junfeng’s shorts courtesy of Objectifs Films. Sandcastle images (C) Zhao Wei Films

Meetings with contemporary Singaporean poets

In July 2010, Mike Ladd of ABC Australia’s Radio National weekly poetry programme, Poetica, spent a week in Singapore. In two beautiful programmes, Mike interviews Singapore’s leading poets from Chinese, Malay, Indian and other backgrounds to find out what they really think of the place and how it influences their writing.

In Part 1 of the programme, he spoke to the elder statesman of Singaporean poetry, Edwin Thumboo, who was born in 1933 in the British colonial period, lived through the war and Japanese occupation, the post-war independence movement, the rule of Lee Kuan Yew, and is still active as a poet and lecturer today.

Alfian Bin Sa’at is a dissident playwright and poet of Malaysian descent who has written a harangue called ‘Singapore You Are Not My Country’, a long, Ginsberg-like wail of a poem, and we also hear a reading of this work in the program.

Aaron Maniam gives us an insight into life as a Muslim poet in Singapore, and Pooja Nansi into her writing as a young woman of Indian descent, pushing up against Singaporean conventions.

We also hear from leading poet and editor Alvin Pang, who gives us a briefing on the phenomenon of ‘Singlish’, that characteristically Singaporean reworking of English, and he reads a poem written in Singlish.

Listen to Part 1 by clicking the image below.

In Part 2, Mike explores the multi-lingual nature of Singaporean society and we hear translations of works by Dan Ying who writes in Chinese, and Mohamed Latiff Mohamed and Rasiah Halil who write in Malay. We also meet Yong Shu Hoong whose poetry invokes his Peranakan heritage.

Cyril Wong has published seven collections of his poetry as well as a collection of tales inspired by Ghost Stories. He is the editor of the “soft blow” website which publishes contemporary Asian and international poetry. Cyril talks about his experience as a gay poet in Singapore.

We also meet Australian Sikh poet Chris Mooney-Singh. Chris has lived in Singapore off and on since 1997 and with his wife Savinder Kaur, is the organiser of Word Forward and the Singapore Lit Up festival for emerging writers and performers. In his long poem “Views From My Apartment” Chris describes looking down from his Singapore Housing Development Board apartment to “this logged-on island gone glocal.”

Listen to Part 2 by clicking on the image below.

Additional readings by Daniel Browning and Mei Wong.

Thanks also to Chris Mooney Singh, Savinder Kaur and Alvin Pang for assistance with research.

Listen to an edition of Abc Radio National’s Artworks programme, exploring Singapore’s performing arts scene, here.

Listen to a further edition of the programme, exploring Singapore’s visual arts scene, here.

One lion. One couple. The bond that will last forever.

The heart can reside in the most unlikely of places, as Christian Lee demonstrates in his joyous entry into the WHERE THE HEART IS competition.

Says Christian:

I made the short film ONE, because my good friend Jason Chan and I urged each other on to enter the WHERE THE HEART IS competition as a challenge to finally get ourselves to do something about our filmmaking desire (see Jason’s film, I Am Home, here). Since the criteria was not daunting, it was an inviting opportunity for me to take in a brief, write a script and shoot a mini short film.

In hindsight, I wish I’d used a more cinematic approach to the visuals, but with limited ability and knowledge I did what I could do at the time. I used still photographs, took out a mini camcorder (Cannon HV40) and shot what I needed to piece images to my narrative.

My little film ONE is rather special and personal to me. It’s that emotional personal story that I felt could make a nice piece of art, and it’s something I’m very comfortable about sharing with others (even perfect strangers). While recording the voiceover narration for my film, I had to do it over and over, because I kept getting choked up with tears of happiness. My wife is so dear to me, and our wedding lion dance has bonded us in a way that words can barely express. Hopefully this film does.

Since making the film I’ve been inspired to write more, but what I’ve managed to successfully improve on are my camera and editing skills. Both Jason Chan and myself are now using dSLR cameras with prime lens to capture beautiful visuals. It’s been a very steep but enjoyable learning curve, as we develop our skill set to be able to tell the many life stories we have to share.

Christian Lee is a Singaporean Permanent Resident, born in the United States. He is an award winning movie producer, for best family feature at the Houston International Film Fest 2008 for the movie Slam, as well as winning the best actor award at the Rome Italy Asian Film Fest 2004 for the Singaporean film Outsiders. One marks his first film as writer/director/editor. His primary area of interest is the social application of technology in the medium of HD video for the web and all the toys associated.


Kavin Hoo composed the music for TIONG BAHRU.

Born in Malaysia in 1975, Kavin began his musical training at the early age of 5 and studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Kavin now lives in Los Angeles, where he runs a music production company, Earthtones Studio, producing and arranging for artists such as Tanya Chua, and co-producing with Corrinne May all of her records.

Listen to Kavin’s music, accompanying the production images of Samantha Tio and Alecia Neo, below

Recounts Kavin:

When Joe & Christine first approached me to work on their new film TIONG BAHRU, I had already seen some of their previous Civic Life works and I knew I would be in for a visual treat. I was not disappointed to say the least. TIONG BAHRU is an incredible film, with sweeping unhurried shots of people adjusting to life and changes in one of Singapore’s earliest community center.

Working on the film has been a very enriching and rewarding experience to me as Joe and Christine are both so talented and precise with the vision that they want to put forth. While the initial spotting session was done in Singapore with Christine, most of the bulk of our communication on the project was via Skype with Joe, due to the fact that they were in UK and I was back in Los Angeles.

I think such a collaboration would have not been possible 10 years ago if not for the technologies we have now, what with video teleconferencing and the ability to send and transfer huige critical music files online.

Originally, the idea I was floating around was to do a more intimate type of score, but Joe & Christine had the idea to go the other way instead. They were looking for a more traditional orchestral score that is lush and big. One thing that stuck with me about what Christine said was to think of the music, the audio aspect, in equal footing with the visuals, and not to be afraid to be more dramatic and bold with the score.

Because the film is short, with 3 major characters and their stories to be told, we thought that rather than to have separate themes for all of them, we would have a theme that binds all of them together. I introduced the “kantele“, a traditional plucked string instrument to bring some intrigue in the beginning of the film, and to re-use that element for the story within the story about the baby found in the woods. I think it creates an instant mysterious and otherworldly sound that creates so much intrigue and drama.

Throughout the whole process, Joe and I would hold daily Skype conference to review our progress, him at the end of his work day and me during my late mornings owing to the time difference.

What amazes me is that Joe & Christine are both very musical people, and their comments to me have always been very on point and easy to grasp.

The music for TIONG BAHRU is truly a collaboration between us as they bring as much to the table as I did. While we accomplished a lot in terms of fine tuning each scene musically, it was also the banter and the rapport that I will cherish just as much.

You can find out more about Kavin’s work, here.

Read more about our production photographers Samantha Tio and Alecia Neo, here.

Gone Home by Ng Yi-Sheng

My father grew up in Tiong Bahru, but you won’t see his neighbourhood in this film. Folks as poor as him in the ‘50s and ‘60s rarely ventured into the posh centre of the district, where they’ve preserved all those art deco shophouses and vintage flats.

No, he lived with his widowed mother in one of those zinc-roofed huts in the overcrowded farming village of Kampong Henderson. Their home was next to a pigsty. It smelt so bad, houseguests couldn’t swallow anything for 24 hours till they got used to the stench.

It was a dump, but it wasn’t such a bad place to be a kid. He spent afternoons with the neighbours’ children, playing hide-and-seek and goli and some game called kererek. At night, his gang would visit the farmer who lived on the edge of the kampong, stealing the doraimi fish from his water hyacinth ditch into their rattan baskets.

Once, he tells me, he was climbing a tree in the cemetery to steal a baby bird from its nest. He let go of a branch and landed feet-first on the ground, breaking through the loose soil into someone’s buried coffin.

Stories like that fascinate me. You see, they’re records of a Singapore that no longer exists. Kampong Henderson is gone: it was bulldozed in 1970, all its residents shifted into the Housing Development Board’s high-rise flats. The cemetery, like so many cemeteries here, was exhumed to make way for the living.

My father’s generation has seen Singapore transform from a filthy colonial post-war ghetto island into a sparkling 21st century metropolis. They’ll tell you how proud they are of the progress we’ve made, but they’ll also confess that sometimes, they’re haunted by nostalgia.

They visit their old neighbourhoods. They find their landmarks erased, replaced by shopping malls and condominiums and expressways. They justify their sacrifice to themselves as the logical cost of development.

And as time wears on, they become strangers in their own homeland. They are exiles from a vanished Singapore.


A hell of a lot’s been said about Singapore’s crisis of heritage. In the words of our intellectuals and artists, we are a city of forgetting; we are cultural orphans with a history of amnesia. It’s almost become a cliché for us to deplore our rootlessness, our lack of a genuine sense of the past.

One of the most dramatic proofs of this dislocation is the way we’ve demolished our physical landscape. Many a concerned citizen will give you a litany of our lost, iconic buildings, now blasted into rubble: the old National Theatre, the old National Library, the old Drama Centre, the Van Kleef Aquarium, the 7th Storey Hotel, the National Stadium, and of course endless cinemas, schools, shophouse rows and kampungs.

The past, of course, was not a paradise. Most of us were poor, and everything stank. As a young writer, I used to grow impatient with old poets who mourned the loss of a Singapore River that was still polluted and littered with used condoms, or a Change Alley boasting the finest imitation branded goods, name your price and we’ll bargain down.

But then I watched in dismay as my own landmarks began to vanish. A disused fountain at Clementi town centre, a patch of grass above the tunnel in Orchard Road, where Filipina domestic workers used to gather on their days off. My own primary school. A part of you dies when the architecture of your memories no longer exists.

I’ve started to accept that this is one of the key themes of Singapore culture, inasmuch as we’ve been able to build a culture in our fiftyish years of nationhood. We’re a people defined by change, for whom transmutation is tradition: our national bird is the construction crane and our national sport is played with a wrecking ball.

And yet even change changes. In the last twelve years, a state-sanctioned movement has arisen championing our heritage, arguing for its preservation. This is why the Urban Redevelopment Authority has been able to declare certain places Heritage Districts, where the architecture of the ages must not be altered: spots like Chinatown, Little India, Katong and Tiong Bahru. A few old places must remain, after all, if only to look good for tourists.

This is also why we’re experiencing a surfeit of museums, with the National Heritage Board gussying up our oldest buildings and turning them into gorgeous, air-conditioned cultural centres. The Singapore Art Museum occupies the campuses of the old Tao Nan School and St Joseph’s Institution; the Arts House sits in the old Parliament House; the Malay Heritage Centre invaded the old Sultan’s palace at Kampong Glam.

It’s a mind-bending experience, passing through one of these preserved buildings, at once grateful that it wasn’t destroyed and aghast at the sheer hyperreality or perverseness of the scenes. There’s the fully restored Baba House on Neil Road, recreating the living conditions of a wealthy Peranakan family of the 1920s, down to the stray magazines left on the tables. Then there’s the old Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, turned into a centre for boutique restaurants and drinking holes.

I shouldn’t be ungrateful. It’s easier, I’ve realised, to pin memories to a place when its façade still exists, never mind if it’s altered beyond recognition. For instance, I recently visited my own childhood home in Pearl Bank, once the tallest condo in Southeast Asia when it was built in the ‘70s.

Now it’s painted beige and amber rather than stately (if boring) grey, the reception area’s full of ornamental plants, the lifts are no longer clunking boxes of stale cigarette-scented air, and the mama shop downstairs doesn’t sell Kaka chicken-flavoured crisps anymore.

But it’s there, the concrete tower. The shadow child is still standing on the 37th floor, experimenting with gravity by dropping his plastic toys down the stairwell. I count my blessings. In a shifting city, you can’t take anywhere for granted.


Joe and Christine have done a ton of historical research into Tiong Bahru. They’ve talked to the residents, and they know all about the demolished school, the condo on the site of the World War II massacre, the apartments where towkays used to hide their mistresses from their wives, the disused bomb shelter and the last Samsui woman, living alone in her one-room flat.

However, they’ve decided to put none of this into their finished film: not one factoid nor ghost story. Instead, they’ve concentrated on telling a story of the present, only dropping hints about how the past shapes us, whether it’s via nostalgia for an old home, or a desire to break away from a family tradition of selling drinks.

It’s been a surprise to many of us involved in the wider TIONG BAHRU project, since so many of us have seized the opportunity to blog about family history and the strangeness of cultural memory or simply to attest to the sorrow of change: how even the renaming of a place generates a sense of loss.

Yet in retrospect, I think Molloy and Lawlor’s decision is a good thing. Blinded by the past, we too often forget to be fascinated with the contemporary. We devalue living history in favour of the dead or dying; we fall in love at last sight without realizing how much we’ll miss the 2010s as soon as they’re gone – especially if the coming decades bring not further development, but decline.

Thus, the following is my philosophy for living in Singapore. Stop, every now and then, and realise that the vista before your eyes is impermanent.

Imagine yourself in the future, remembering this moment in the present. Savour it. Survey the landscape that surrounds you. It may be one of those overcrowded, tastelessly opulent places that everyone loves to hate: Orchard Ion, Iluma, Marina Bay Sands, Resorts World, the renovated Chinatown. In that case, love the overcrowding, love the tastelessness, love the opulence.

Remember: we are not only exiles of the past, but refugees of the present. We try to live normal lives till we’re thrown out again into another unrecognizable country.

So, open your eyes. Try as hard as you can to love your homeland.

A day will come very soon when it will leave you.


Ng Yi-Sheng is a poet, playwright, journalist, critic, fiction writer and minor activist. He writes about history, sexuality and the development of the arts in Singapore, and has collaborated with numerous local theatre and dance companies through art-making and creative documentation.

He won the Singapore Literature Prize for his poetry collection “last boy”, and is also the author of “Eating Air”and the best-selling “SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century”. He’s currently co-editing “GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose”, which will be released later this year.

He blogs at http://lastboy.blogspot.com


TIONG BAHRU screens at the Singapore Writers Festival on October 30th. Find out how to book tickets, here.

Read Yi-Sheng’s interview with filmmaker Royston Tan about his love for Old Places, here.

Read Yi-Sheng’s interview with Boo Junfeng about his shorts and first feature SANDCASTLE, excavating Singapore’s recent memories, here.

This essay features in the booklet accompanying the DVD of TIONG BAHRU, available from all NLB branches.

TIONG BAHRU is off to Paris!

TIONG BAHRU recently played at the prestigious LES RENCONTRES INTERNATIONALES, taking place in Paris from 18th to 26th November.

Held at the Centre Pompidou and the Gaîté lyrique, the festival aims to create during 9 days a space of discovery and reflection between new cinema and contemporary art.

In the presence of artists and filmmakers from all over the world, this rare event will offer an international programme of film, video, multimedia. It includes 25 screenings, an out of town day with the visit of several exhibitions through the Ile-de-France Region, a cycle of debates and panel discussions.

Details of the TIONG BAHRU screening can be found, here.

This year’s programme has been selected from 5500 submissions as well as by invitations made to some artists and filmmakers. It is the result of an elaborate international search for works: 150 works from Germany, France, Spain and 40 other countries, gathering internationally-known artists and filmmakers with young artists and filmmakers presented for the first time.

Full details of the program can be found here.

TIONG BAHRU also played recently (11th/12th November) in Perth as part of the inaugural Singapore Short Film Festival, and in Cairns and Townsville in Queensland as part of the Travelling Sydney Film Festival, while six more screenings around Australia in early 2012 have just been confirmed.

To quote the film, “All things start small”. 🙂

TIONG BAHRU in Poland!

TIONG BAHRU was selected for the prestigious Regiofun Film Festival, which took place in Katowice, Poland from 19th to the 23rd October.

The film played as part of a program looking at representations of the city in film, City Film Film City, which also inclues Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire and Woody Allen’s recent Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as well as films by leading Polish directors such as Jozef Robakowsk and Jan Lenica.


The confirmation of the screening in Poland means that, in the course of one week in October, the film screened in five separate locations in four different countries:

Singapore, Katowice, Dublin, Toowoomba (Queensland, Australia) and Charters Towers (also Queensland).

Details of the Regiofun program can be found, here.

To quote the film, “All things start small”. 🙂

TIONG BAHRU at Singapore Writers Festival!

TIONG BAHRU came home for a special one-off screening at the National Museum of Singapore as part of the Singapore Writers Festival…and director Joe Lawlor was in town to present the film!


At the screening, moderated by playwright and poet Ng Yi-Sheng, Joe was joined by Books Actually co-founder Kenny Leck, whose much loved shop relocated to the estate earlier this year.

In a lively discussion , the panel talked about how the estate had inspired them, how place can be a source of inspiration for artists and why they have all found in the Tiong Bahru a sense of homecoming. The audience also shared their views on the film and their memories of, and feelings towards the estate.

Thanks to TIONG BAHRU production photographer Samantha Tio for the images of the event, and to all who came along to the event.

You can read Yi-Sheng’s essay on Singaporeans search for belonging in an everchanging landscape, here, while you can listen to an interview with Kenny on ABC’s Artworks radio programme, here.

If you have still to see the film, contact your nearest branch of the NLB, who should have copies for loan.

See the film’s production images by Samantha Tio and Alecia Neo, and accompanied by the beautiful soundtrack of Kavin Hoo, below.

See a report on the making of TIONG BAHRU, here.

Throughout the Civic Life project in Singapore, leading writers have shared their thoughts with us on ideas of identity, belonging and community.

You can read three pieces, which feature in the booklet accompanying the TIONG BAHRU DVD, below.

Ng Yi-Sheng on the ever-changing landscape of Singapore.
Alvin Pang on a geography of Singapore mapped through personal reminiscences.
Tan Shzr Ee on the rich linguistic identity of Singapore and Singaporeans.

More on Writing & Singapore

There have been a number of fascinating features, looking at Singapore’s arts and cultural scene, broadcast on Australia’s ABC Radio National across 2011. They feature interviews with many leading figures from Singapore, including Alvin Pang, Pooja Nansi and Cyril Wong. Find out more, below:

Listen to a two part Poetica special, exploring Singaporean poetry, here.

Listen to an Artworks report on what you can expect to find in a bookshop in Singapore, and featuring Tiong Bahru’s very own super bookshop, Books Actually, here.

Listen to an Artworks programme, exploring Singapore’s performing arts scene, here.

Listen to an Artworks programme, exploring Singapore’s visual arts scene, here.

In Rear Vision, also on the ABC, the story of public housing in Singapore is explored, starting with the very first developments along Tiong Bahru Road.

Writing The City

You can watch all of the episodes of WRITNG THE CITY, an online creative writing programme, written and presented by Singapore Literature Prize Suchen Christine Lim and UK novelist Jeremy Sheldon and inspired by TIONG BAHRU, below.

Watch The Writer’s Eye, here.
Watch Characters, here.
Watch Encounters, here.
Watch The Magical, here.
Watch The Individual And The City, here.
Watch Looking Forward, featuring top tips for writers, here.

Reading Singapore with BooksActually on ABC Radio National

In any society, what you can and can’t write, what you can and can’t publish, what you can and can’t read, tells you a fair bit about the place: about its political system and its social values. So, what would you expect to find in a bookshop in Singapore?

In this special report for Australia’s ABC Radio National, Debra McCoy finds out, with her first stop being at BooksActually in the Tiong Bahru Estate, where she meets co-founder Kenny Leck and poet Alvin Pang. Debra also speaks to writer and political candidate Teo Soh Lung about her memoir, Beyond the Blue Gate.

Listen to the programme, here.

More about Singapore on ABC Radio National

Listen to a previous edition of the Artworks programme, exploring Singapore’s performing arts scene, here.

Listen to a further edition of the Artworks programme, exploring Singapore’s visual arts scene, here.

Listen to a two part Poetica special, exploring Singaporean poetry, here.

In Rear Vision, also on the ABC, the story of public housing in Singapore is explored, , starting with the very first developments along Tiong Bahru Road.

More on Writing

Throughout the Civic Life project in Singapore, leading writers have shared their thoughts with us on ideas of identity, belonging and community.

You can read three pieces, which feature in the booklet accompanying the TIONG BAHRU DVD, below.

Ng Yi-Sheng on the ever-changing landscape of Singapore.
Alvin Pang on a geography of Singapore mapped through personal reminiscences.
Tan Shzr Ee on the rich linguistic identity of Singapore and Singaporeans.

Writing The City

You can watch all of the episodes of WRITNG THE CITY, an online creative writing programme inspired by TIONG BAHRU and written and presented by Singapore Literature Prize Suchen Christine Lim and UK novelist Jeremy Sheldon, below.

Watch The Writer’s Eye, here.
Watch Characters, here.
Watch Encounters, here.
Watch The Magical, here.
Watch The Individual And The City, here.
Watch Looking Forward, featuring top tips for writers, here.

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