Funds for Ramadan 2020

[Update | May 22, 2020]

Just wanted to keep everyone who contributed in the loop. Despite the economy being in doldrums, we’ve been incredibly blessed to have raised half a grand in a few days. Definitely surpassed what we were hoping to raise, so thank you vv much! We’ve sent out 119 meals to 16 friends, twice a week. Soulfood Catering was an obvious winner with the kids and Brett (the charming co-owner) had been so generous in topping up our nasi lemak sets with putu piring from the makcik beside. 

Also, qt Ryan celebrated his birthday at home with half of his family. The day before, he had sent me a one-liner “tomorrow is my birthday” at 4.43am, haha.  A bit surreal that this boy is now 12. Soon he won’t be video-calling and sending over adorable messages and tiktok vids to me anymore? :(

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[April 20, 2020]

Woke up last morning to a text from an old friend, Shaun, asking for recommendations to an organization to donate to during such times and it prodded me to put together something for the few families I’ve been serving. 

Long story short, the aforementioned convo sparked an open call (me on trusty IG story and Qq through her own networks) for some $$ so that the bunch of us can send out happy meals, twice a week, to our kids in Yishun and Woodlands during Ramadan. Sure, there are organizations that dispense free food to families in need but I’m also acutely aware of how there’s always the need for verification (ugh this can be v degrading and dehumanizing at times) and that sometimes the food isn’t the most delectable or appetizing either. 

Of course, there are two camps out there – one being those who would vehemently argue and assert, ‘it’s free food, they should just take whatever is given.’ But the renegade in me on the other end/hand wants to advocate for them to get some nutritious, wholesome albeit pricier meals too. During this month of Ramadan, please allow me to occasionally indulge them in a dinner set from Hjh Maimunah resto or a good portion of sinful mutton briyani, because if you can, why can’t they?

We will also be getting them some goodies and groceries to cruise them through iftar and sahur. So, if you’d like to contribute, can always ping me at 97698301 and I’ll hit you with more deets. Might score you some karma points and land you in the (elusive) Good Place.

Also, writing this to remember that the youths of today aren’t as apathetic as we make them be. Most pleasantly surprised and moved by two fellas I’ve been working with in the last couple of years. Shout out to Charmaine for soliciting donations from all her woke Cedar and VJ friends. Doesn’t matter whether it’s $2.90 or $30, it’s really that little gesture that matters. Thanks for giving up your days’ worth of bubble tea or delivery for ‘em. Also, to my not-so-kid-anymore Mervin who has been delaying getting his back injury fixed because “too expensive”, yet first few to step forward and contribute a sizeable % of his paltry army pay. You both make me very proud <3


Field Notes: Prison sessions

Exactly a year ago, I received a text from one of the prison superintendents, Mdm D, bidding for me to excogitate a program for girls in Reformative Training Centre (RTC). She knew of my community work with at-risk youths and thought I’d be a good fit to plug the current gap/s in the prison system.

In my knowledge, through-care for young female offenders has been found lacking, especially salient in comparison to their male counterparts. The scarcity of befrienders going into prison is compounded by the fact that very often the biographies and personality of these well-meaning individuals who volunteer their time simply do not match the girls inside. As a result, the efficacy of the programs planned leaves a lot to be desired. Girls come out wanting to change, but fade and go back in just as quickly. Not just that. They follow through the prison system like we do in school - graduating from Girls Home to RTC and then to Prison. Rate of recidivism is high.

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In my first meeting with Mdm D and C, I was immediately sold by the opportunity of going in to prison. I’ve heard countless stories from my subjects-turned-friends of their time inside this total institution and have always wanted to see and *smell* what this space was like. But I also know for a fact that I’m not one who works well with bureaucracy and red tape, so I needed someone like-minded, organized and patient to help me deal with all of those so I could have fun doing work I like to do. This is where my kindred spirit and co-conspirator, Nadia Samdin, comes in. 

My friendship with Nad dates back to 2013 when we were co-panelists on a Trailblazer Community Service Weekend Sharing Session co-curated by *SCAPE and TedxYouth. Not gonna lie and say I paid a lot of attention to her then because I was enamored by Anthony Chen, whose film at that time just won the Cannes Award (sorry Nad!), but we kept in touch and over the years I’ve been impressed by her work and dedication to the community she serves. I knew for sure I would want her on board if I had meaningful work to do and needed a partner.

Long story short, Nad and I formed a team and it’s been 8 months in. 8 months of administrative headaches, cumbersome paperwork, pushing boundaries, playing bad cop (think: archaic and inflexible systems), but also pooling together a motley crew of befrienders, doing ethnographic work inside listening to stories of despair and regret; and also of dreams and resilience, and now meeting some of these girls outside has been pretty darn fulfilling.

Just some field notes:

One incident that shook me – receiving news that A, who was actually due to be released pretty soon, was sentenced to punishment cell/isolation because of misbehavior and subsequently diagnosed/labeled to have mental health issues. Of course, the medicalization of deviant behavior looks to be the easiest way to file and ‘treat’ these individuals, but really, how much of this is actually us individualizing social problems (i.e. becomes a medical problem/illness vs social issue)? You take away the moral culpability of what being in this cold, inhuman, insentient space managed in the most esteem-crushing, undignified way does to your soul. Now it becomes the fault of the deviant and not symptomatic of problems in this social system. Right? Very sad because in all my interactions with A, she struck me as a warm and enthusiastic youth with a fervour for life :(

Also, another thing that stood out was the girls’ perception of self-image and social participation upon release. The first few considerations and actions were to shed away visual cues of prison life by getting a new look (hair, nails, brows, clothes) so as to reintegrate back into “legitimate” society. Yet, their public identity as a deviant is still highlighted and made known by the tagging device latched on their leg (so big, so conspicuous!). Surely, this only serves to remind them of ‘em labels and master status as an offender. We brought V to the climbing gym last week and she insisted on wearing sweat pants (because long enough to cover the tagging) to avoid unwelcome stares. 

Medicalizing deviant behaviors, labeling and branding, status degrading tokens, middle-class aspirational references and lack of means – so many things to think about. It’s going to be a long and arduous journey. Do I have solutions to any of these? No, I certainly don’t. But I think I’m growing with each visit and every encounter with these girls and I hope that in time to come I’d have some answers however piecemeal they may be.


Covid-19 and more

I apologize for being largely absent on this page. In the last 10 months, I’ve been penning my thoughts everywhere but here. Some days I retrieve random scraps of papers buried deep and forgotten in the back compartment of my bag with equally random musing, other times I flip open my notebooks to pensive, broody entries. But all’s good.

This time the impetus for writing is to memorialize, lest my goldfish memory fails me, this whole whirlwind of events that are happening around the world and concomitantly to my little universe. 

Of course, we’re all hard-hit by this Covid-19 pandemic and it will indefinitely impair our lives for at least a good couple of months. So much fear and anticipatory grief all around, distress and sorrow for some, but generally a lot more anxiety and inconvenience for us all. That said, I’ve managed to draw some positives from this ongoing episode and also still count other blessings in life. 

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So, the climbing gym, boulder+, I frequent and do some fun work for was unfortunately hit with our first Covid-19 case, also patient zero (henceforth known as 142) in the climbing community. A lot of vitriol and abomination spreading in the circle because of the few hundred people 142 forced into quarantine. 

Having left the gym 45 minutes before he entered, I only escaped quarantine very narrowly. I’m going to be upfront and post an unpopular opinion here but I stand with 142. He may have not made the wisest of decisions, esp. since his family was involved in a big known cluster in Jurong, but I don’t think he needs to be chastised or condemned :( We’ve all been stupid to different extents and made selfish choices, although with dissimilar repercussions, but guess we could do with a lot more love and kindness in such trying times. 

Anyway because of 142, I’ve got my first taste in crisis management and corporate communications handling b+’s social media accounts. I’m not formally trained in this field so a lot of it was down to educated guesswork and staying true to my being but ‘honesty’, ‘timeliness of information’ and ‘engagement with the community’ were the three important things that led the way for me. Some of the things we did were to get healthcare professionals who climb to answer Q&As from our climbers; sharing books and movie lists curated by our community to our quarantined friends amongst others. It was good fun, a great learning curve and overall I would like to think we did pretty well :)

for anyone else who wants some rec :D

Oh, the icing on the cake was when one of our regular climbers proposed a #bpositive t-shirt, in support of the gym, got it approved, designed and printed in a matter of days. Other less exciting and stressful behind the scenes would be masterfully timing and carefully wording the announcements, answering inane questions and checking copy when you’re exhausted. Very thankful for people I can trust 100% to fact check and read for me any time of the day – Smellywelly and Hakeem. 

In spite of the economic uncertainties and instability, I’ve received a proposition to maybe teach inter-disciplinary mod/s at my *dream school* (fingers crossed) and also the opportunity to work with a few individuals struggling with mental health issues at a Family Service Centre in Jurong. Extremely grateful for synergy and alignment in things I’ve got an interest in and paid work.

In the last 8 months, Nad and I have also been going in to prison to do some work with girls inside. I’ll strive to write more about the entire process (hurhur) soon but some of our girls are out and I think this is where the real work starts. Previously, I’ve handled mostly boys, so this is going to be interesting… and err… a lot more dramatic I foresee.

Lastly, for me to remember on days I feel like giving up on these ‘kids’:

-       Merv is gonna graduate as a naval diver soon!

-       Ayil was signed by an S-league club in Jan :’)

-       Leo, Hilmi & Ady are serving the nation and not in trouble

-       Hifzhan is back to climbing

Also current read - Deviant Behaviour: A Text Reader in the Sociology of Deviance. If you sat through this entire post, thank you and have a good day x


&Kaychin.

It’s gonna be a wrap! Our last Platform session is on 4th June, 2019, at Objectifs, 7.30pm onwards. Feat. Charmaine Poh, Sarah Choo and Jerrold Chong. 

My involvement in Singapore photography began in 2013 through Platform, a few months after I ‘started’ photography. By a stroke of luck and probably timely divine intervention, my work was selected and I was accepted to be part of the 2012 Angkor Photo Workshop in Cambodia. Most of my local contemporaries would have studied photography and/or went for workshops at home first before qualifying, but I got really lucky. I remember feeling embarrassed and inadequate when they were screening our portfolios on Day 1 of the workshop. Truly astounded and in awe when I saw what the Indian photographers, in particular, had to offer. In comparison, my work was crap. But because I went there and started from zero, I gained a lot out of this whole experience. More than that, I made friends in Juliana Tan, Zinkie Aw & Desmond Lui who shared with me about this photography community, Platform, in Singapore.

With Platform, I started off as a spectator. Listening with wide eye wander as speaker after speaker came to the National Museum of Singapore and enchanted us with their journey and stories. It could have ended there - with me being a sponge. But 3 years ago when Kay Chin and team wanted to pull the plug, Juliana and I decided to step in. It was our time to give back to the community, and more importantly for me, it was my way to acknowledge and thank this one man who has been instrumental in my career the last couple of years. 

I don’t say it enough and I’m not the best with words, but Kay Chin, thank you for everything. You taught me the art of self-publishing and printing; trusted me with co-producing big shows, locally and internationally; gave me opportunities to exhibit in Istanbul and Korea; passed me jobs you could have done etc. More than that, you taught me to be compassionate; to give, give and give (even if it hurts); and many other values in life. “If you’ve never been invited to home-cooked meals at Chempedak and also been berated by Kay Chin before, you’re not in the inner circle” (Wong, 2019). Thanks for letting me in, although I hope I will never get chided again.

I re-read the recommendation you wrote for me when I was applying to Missouri Photo Workshop (MPW) in 2014. In it, you spoke of me as a young, budding photojournalist; resilient and idealistic and you urged Dave, the co-director of MPW, to give me this chance of a lifetime. 

“And in return, our community will get in her, a responsible journalist committed to excellence and a colleague that can be relied on.” Now that we’re graduating from running Platform, I’m sure there are many other ways I’d find in contributing back home, but I hope I have been and will always be this beacon that you can be proud of. 


Educate and enable

Would have liked to keep consistent at writing in this space but procrastination has been my biggest foe. Let’s try to restart. 

The past year was spent doing a couple of things that nourished my soul – educating and enabling.

How felicitous to have scored gigs as an adjunct lecturer in NAFA and NTU; and am slowly evolving myself into being a critical, but hopefully still nurturing, educator. I’m glad that my interactions with my students thus far have been beyond classroom management and that we have very open communication channels and an appreciation for learning together. I draw a lot from lived experience as a ‘problem kid’ in my earlier days and perhaps that’s why educating has become something instinctive and innate.

I have also managed to divide and devote much time to my Yishun kids, in particular, Hafiz, Arash, and Hifzhan, whom I bring to climb at boulder+, thrice a week. The Straits Times featured it on their Causes Week 2018 - you should watch the video where the kids talk. Hilarious bunch. Can’t seem to hotlink it well, so this would have to suffice : https://www.straitstimes.com/files/causes-week-2018-helping-vulnerable-kids-in-the-neighbourhood

At the onset, class difference was brought into sharper relief when them, the ‘uninitiated’ and the ‘Other’, were thrown in a middle-class environment. “Can help me borrow shoes from the counter?”; “I don’t dare to ask him, you help lah”; “if you go home, we also go home.” – very typical requests at the beginning when they came to the gym.

Over time, those feelings of alienation and being ‘out of place’ dissipated. It took a while to teach them how to behave appropriately in the gym, but much still falls short - you cannot entirely undo fourteen years of socialization in 1 year. The boys have been an incredible source of joy and pride to me, but they have been extremely exasperating and disappointing at times too. You win some, you lose some.

In terms of personal work, I was on a hiatus but the engine is now revving and ready to go. I ruminate most when I go for a long swim or for a backrub. It is those times when I am totally in my zone and my headspace least convoluted. One recurrent thought that has surfaced would be of how I would like to dedicate the rest of my life to do three projects – School of Hard Knocks; Ki and his whirlwind transformation from headman to pottery; Family Stories (working title). 

Let me talk more about ‘Family Stories’. It is a personal story about my family; the easiest and also the more difficult to put together. I have been documenting this in bits and pieces over the years. It also helps that the fam has a whole truckload of images in our archive so it’s much about consolidating items too. I’ve chronicled my grief, from 2015 to 2018, on losing my dad. Still, a very sensitive and delicate topic to me that asphyxiates me from time to time.

My work now veers towards remembering him. I find my memory fading; but so many stories still left untold. I need to pick up speed. But first, I finally mustered some courage to review a video interview I did with my mother in 2013. It was of my father. She was very shy and reserved with some answers, but she spoke of him fondly. Father was downstairs watching TV; she was probably afraid he would come up and listen to what she had to say. I always think that they share a very pure form of love. So, it was very difficult for me to watch this clip, because it would remind me of him. 


And his absence now.

(psst. I didn’t force papa to do anything!!!!)


Platform x Pera in Istanbul

Back from Istanbul and finally found some time to write. Attended the ‘Singapore Unseen’ exhibition opening in Istanbul in early April. If you’ve read my previous entry, you’d know that this is one of the biggest, if not biggest!, overseas Singapore photography show ever, and it was one that I had the honour of planning alongside curator Kay Chin and my fellow production manager Juliana. 

It all started with a text message from Kay Chin inviting us to a meeting with renowned architect Tan Kay Ngee, who’s based in both Istanbul and Singapore. Working together with a stellar A*team in writers Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and Justin Zhuang, and advisors Lindy Poh and Tan Shir-Ee also made things a lot smoother. 

But the biggest deal for me was really seeing all these plans come to fruition. From Kay Chin’s makeshift styrofoam model of the museum space and our mini print outs to the real deal in Pera museum. The prints were stunning and the video projections added depth to the show. 

As much as we came on board as production managers for this show, Juliana and I also learnt a whole great deal from this process too. Prior to this show, I was one of the producers for Platform’s Twentyfifteen.sg exhibition at Esplanade. Still very green at that time but decided to dive into the deep end and embrace the steep learning curve. Came into this show a little more experienced but always something new to learn each time. And this is what I always remind my students too - that learning can and will happen anywhere as long as you’re opened to it. 

Not sure if and when we’ll have another Singapore photography show of this scale overseas so if you’re in Istanbul the next couple of weeks, swing by Pera museum and check it for what it’s worth. 

(Photos by Tay Kay Chin, Samuel He and myself)


‘Singapore Unseen’ exhibition

Am pleased to share that ‘Singapore Unseen’, comprising the work of 33 photographers, would be exhibited at the Pera Museum, Istanbul, from 5 April to 20 May. This exhibition is based on selected works in the TwentyFifteen and +50 projects. Our (Platform’s) Pera connection began when Singaporean architect Tan Kay Ngee, who lives in Istanbul a few months each year, shared TwentyFifteen and +50 books with senior members of the Pera Museum. In the last few months, we have been working very hard to put together a show there. Spread over two floors in the private museum, this is one of the biggest group photography shows for Singapore-based photographers. More than 150 images and four videos will be featured in this exhibition. 

Given our excitement, we had a tough time trying to keep this as low key as possible before Pera’s official announcement. Many meetings, filled with lots of food and good discussions, with our curatorial and writing team, including Kay Ngee, Lindy Poh, Shir Ee, Justin, and Yu-Mei, were held at Kay Ngee’s office. Right before CNY, Kay Chin went over to Istanbul to settle production and logistics for the show. And just last week, Juliana was there to oversee printing handled very professionally by printing lab Difo.
We are thankful that something close to our hearts is finding ways into new places. Also, always grateful to the people who have kept faith in us and have been encouraging us on. Kay Chin and I will be in Istanbul end of the month to install the show. If you’re going to be in Istanbul, come join us. Otherwise, we promise to keep you guys updated with lots of photos and videos!


NUS Community Sports

Scored a sweet gig to photograph for NUS Student Affairs. The brief was simple : do what you normally do and capture the essence of community sports in NUS over four sessions. No models/talents, no posing, just story telling at its finest. 

Followed the Dragonboat girls, Rockclimbing guys, an Interhall games finals and a Sports Jam. It was fun to be back on campus! Also just a little plug, if you’re a full time NUS student, you might want to take part in the NUS Community Sports photo contest here. Generous cash prizes up for grabs and also bragging rights ;) 

Good luck and God speed.


Hello 2018.

Been meaning to write but never quite found the time and right words to put it all together. Not going to put up a perfunctory 2017 reflections/summary up but perhaps share some of the more interesting things that happened and also my current outlook on life. 

If you follow me on Facebook, I had listed out two highlights of my 2017 - that would be working with the Yishun kids beyond Hello Heartlands, a photography project supported by Our Singapore Fund and National Arts Council; and picking up a new sport in climbing. The former has evolved into a loose collective of young residents, living in rental units in Yishun St 22, who now have access to Friday group tuition, holiday outings and a listening ear in us. I’ve so much more to say about climbing but that would be a post for another time.

Those of you following my work would also know that I’m a dedicated and passionate documentary photographer. In particular, I’m moving onto my 5th year for the ’School of Hard Knocks’ project. Had the opportunity to exhibit at the ’Women in Photography’ showcase at Objectifs together with Maika Elan, Nancy Borowick, Sandra Mehl, and co. in Oct 2017. Henri Cartier-Bresson says that ‘your first 10,000 photographs are your worst’. I’ve made more than 10,000 images of this family but I know the best is yet to be. For younger photographers out there, 10k images on one given project sound intimidating but the key, really, is consistency and a love for your subject/subject matter. I strive to keep at this body of work for as long as I wield a camera.

Apart from docu work, I did a bit more teaching too. My teaching stints at various institutions like Singapore Sports School, ITE East, and Roundbox Centre allowed me to work with more youths and was a (personal) reaffirmation that I possessed a chemistry and synergy with the younger gen. It has been refreshing and I look forward to more teaching gigs this year.

On a slightly somber note, end Jan marks the 3rd anniversary of my Dad’s demise and while the ghosts of that night still haunt me, his passing is a stark reminder that life is transient and unpredictable. It somehow always takes a tragedy to shake us up and make us rethink life, but since then, I’ve been enjoying life as best as I can.

I no longer blindly chase accolades and dollar bills. I’m not sure you can say I’m less ambitious or driven than before, but I’ve learned to pace myself and do more of the things I love. My close friends comment that I’m very lucky to be enjoying life like this. Damn right. But I also think it is a deliberate choice you and I can make. What if you’ve been slogging your entire life and then *bam* you realize you only have one more week to live? 

I don’t have many material needs - no extravagant purchases, no luxurious lifestyle. Only the occasional splurge at cafes and paying for climbing gym passes. I spend much of my days at home - watching, reading, learning new things, going out teach and shoot, working on my personal projects, dreaming about new work to produce, traveling and now climbing.  I count myself fortunate not to be stuck with student loans or any debts and to have a family that is financially stable and supportive of the decisions I’ve made thus far. But if you think about it, if we’re not slaves to consumerism, do we really need so much to survive?

I thank God for the clarity and peace in my heart and for all His blessings and favors. When a good opportunity slips away, Mama and I would always remind each other that “if it’s not yours, it’s not yours”. I hope that 2018 would be just as rad with more growth for my journey in storytelling, sharing and climbing. I’ve set myself many little goals and milestones to work towards to in the aforementioned three aspects, but may a fulfilling and meaningful existence be at the bottom of it all.

Here’s to a gnarly 2018 to you all too. Cheers.


Boyhood

In Mar 2014, I went for a baby’s first birthday party. I hadn’t met the birthday boy before, but my then-new friend, Mel, who eventually becomes the subject of my long-term photography project, invited me to attend. “You will meet a lot of people. The dancers also going. And anyway, it is Prem’s son’s party. You can go help him take pictures.” 

I gladly obliged. To me, it was another opportunity to get to know my subjects better. 

After that birthday, I didn’t see much of Kavi. Prem’s marriage was on the rocks and he decided to let Kavi’s biological mother, Gowri, care for his son. Few months later when the couple officially split up, Prem and Mel started dating. While Mel and her kids became a mainstay in Prem’s life, he took time to check on his son once in awhile. 

When he found out that his ex-wife was abusing drugs and leading a hedonistic lifestyle, Prem realised that he needed to step up and be a better parent. He decided to bring Kavi home, to give him a safe space to grow up. So it was only in 2016 that I started to see Kavi a lot more. 

Having a ‘new’ younger brother at home was very exciting for the kids because they not only had a new playmate but another boy at home. They come from a family of six sisters and one brother, but the latter is currently serving a sentence in RTC. The younger three sisters, Shivani, Shanthani and Nesa, would fight to sleep next to Kavi, squabble to feed him and vie for his attention during playtime. They are also now in charge of mothering Kavi - which includes picking him up from school and seeing to his daily needs and hygiene.

Amongst the three sisters, Kavi enjoys his time with Nesa the most. “Nesa akka is funny and kind. She also plays with me,” Kavi shared. The other night when I was over at Mel’s, I asked Kavi if he’d like to come over to my new place. 

“What can I do there?” he asked. 

“Oh, you can watch TV or you can play on my computer,” I replied. 

“I want to play computer!”

“Okay, you can come later.”

“….myself? Nesa akka also ok?”

Kavi is now 4.5 years old. He gets away with some mischief through his good looks, charm and cheeky nature but otherwise dramatises when he doesn’t get his way with the sisters (i.e. fake cry!!!). He learns Chinese in pre-school but isn’t too good at it. He loves to eat ice-cream and cold drinks but knows that he shouldn’t consume them, especially not in front of Mel, because of his asthma. He taught his friend to brush his teeth with body foam (what a prankster!). 

Kavi is only 4.5 years old but has been passed through many different hands and lived in more than 4 homes and guardians/parents. He remembers his biological mother but does not have strong feelings towards her - neither love nor dislike. He does not understand why his paternal grandfather came over one day and snatched him home. He has a hole in his heart which we only learnt about recently. 

If we use our ‘adult’ lens to look at his world, it hasn’t been easy. But I am guessing Kavi doesn’t think much of it. At least not now. For the most part, he’s still a very happy-go-lucky boy.

Not sure what life has in store for him in the long run but looking forward to see how boyhood pans out for him in the next few years. 

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