Wednesdays with Nesa

I struggled with typing this entry because I certainly did not want this to be a feel good, self-praise kind of post. But I also felt the strong need to share about this book I just completed and how it has convinced me to keep doing what I am doing.

“Invisible Thread” follows the story of Laura Schroff, a busy and successful sales executive, who meets 11 year-old panhandler, Maurice. All his life, Maurice had lived in neighborhoods that were rampant with drugs and crime. He could have very well followed his mother’s footsteps and engaged in a life of drugs and misdemeanor, until that first Monday when Laura decided to buy him dinner at Mac Donalds’. His life was changed forever. What followed were weekly Monday meetings that went on for years where they both learnt so much about life from each other. 

Reading that book reminded me of my relationship with Mel and family, and in particular, her youngest daughter, Nesa. I met Nesa when she was 10. She didn’t leave much of an impression until I saw how broken she was each Sunday when she had to go back to Gracehaven, an institution she had to live in until her mother could earn her custody rights back. [Nesa came back home for good in Jan 2016]  

Since I live a stone’s throw away from Gracehaven, I would make it a point to stay until 10-ish pm whenever I was over at Mel’s place on Sunday, so that I could give Nesa a lift. That was how we bonded. (*Gonna issue a caveat here – don’t get me wrong, Mel (her mother) is one of the most amazing human beings I know and respect, and while it sounds like she is neglecting her daughter, she isn’t. She made poor decisions in her life earlier on, and now has seven mouths to feed. She is trying her absolute best as a mother to provide for her kids, in whatever ways she knows, but just does not have enough resources and time to devote her all to each individual.) 

Over the years, I would try my best to be at events that mattered – whether birthdays, dance competitions or school orientation. This year, Nesa and I spend every Wednesday evenings together. Our evenings start with me ferrying her for athletics training at CCAB and then dinner after that. Her other sisters question me at times and call me out for favouritism. I feel bad but I don’t want to over promise and under commit to the rest. It would not be fair either. 

Our relationship, and its dynamics, is fluid and takes on many forms. Some days I am Bernice jie jie (sister), other days I am the disciplinarian; the guardian (that meets her teachers in school); the secret keeper; the savings banker; the youtube songs downloader and occasionally the naggy old folk. 

On our way to Nesa’s first SportCares CareRunners training at CCAB, she was feeling nervous. Things she has told me included : “I am very nervous, can I go home now?”; “My stomach really very pain.”; “Got so many people, I am so scared.”; “Bernice jie jie, if they never come today, you run with me ah.”; “Can you tell them don’t come?”; “Am I the only one running? Or a lot?”; “Butterflies in my stomach. My heart is beating so fast.”

We’ve had simple Wednesdays, but we’ve also had exciting Wednesdays. Most exciting being her meeting her track idol, Shanti Pereira, and even receiving a pair of shoes and autographed polaroid of them together (more in another post!). We’ve also had a rainy Wednesday when I waited one hour for her thinking if she would show up! She did. All drenched, no less. 

I can’t say for sure how long this Wednesday commitment would last. I do get weary and discouraged at times - why doesn’t her school attendance improve, is she learning anything at all, etc. But after reading this account of Laura and Maurice, I would definitely like to make each Wednesdays together count and become a memory we can reminisce and laugh about many years down the road.  

In Memory of

Ki is a man with a checkered past and a lot of baggages, emotional and physical. He was once a headman of a gang in Jurong, leading riots and clashes, dealing with drugs and dirty money. There was also a time when he was a boy from a broken family, running from one rental room to another with his father and sister because of harassment from the loan sharks. At the same time, he had to endure beatings from bullies in secondary school. 

Three stints in prison and ten years later, he decided to seek a new lease of life. It was not something that happened overnight, nor one special episode that turned his life around. It was a decade of struggling with guilt and disappointment - including many rejections after interviews when the employers learnt of his record; the sudden passing of his dad; surviving assault by 108 men as a rite of passage for leaving the gang; studying hard and clinching a 4.0 GPA for NITEC only to be looked down on when he was released - that made him want to fight even harder. It was also meditation, finding peace in religion and pottery, meeting benefactors and higher education that catalysed this transformation. 

When I first met him in 2015, I was afraid, just like when I first met Mel. I would never, in my wildest imagination, believe if you told me I’d find my other half in someone like Ki. But as we started hanging out, we found a common love for the arts and working with youths from disadvantaged background. Most of all, it was his golden heart for the boys he worked with, to whom he kept giving and giving to even when he was penniless, fighting for when their rights and space were compromised and loving them like his own brothers, that moved me. To that he always said, “I know what it is like to be poor and looked down on”. 

In the year ahead, I would be writing and documenting more of Ki and his past. It’s a project I’ve been formulating in my head for awhile, but have yet to find the best way of presenting it. Akan datang :)

Coping with loss and finding a balance

I will always remember returning home on the 30th Jan 2015 to find my father lifeless on the sofa, with the television still on. My words to him were, “wake up Dad, go up (to your room) and sleep”. If I wanted to, I can recount this scene and everything that unfolded that night; but it is a memory, alongside other memories with and of my Dad, that I choose to compartmentalise and not think about now. I bury it deep down inside, lock and key, and reserve it only for the most private of moments when I allow myself to be vulnerable. 

All the self-help books/guides/kits and people around say that things will get easier with time. I think it does. Not because we forget, but because we learn to cope with the grief and loss. My defence mechanism is now better oiled and I have learnt how to react and respond when it comes to events that used to revolve around him. 

Instead, the other thing I am learning to manage, very tenderly, is the other half he left behind, my mother. For the most part, she is incredibly independent and has been very strong throughout this ordeal, but this doesn’t take away the fact that the love of her life is no longer here with us and there will be many a times, as we all get so occupied with our own lives, when she would feel so alone in this big universe. 

This is a new balance I need to figure out not only because I owe it to my mother for being the biggest giver of all time, but also I know this is what Dad would have wanted - for us to love and protect our mother like he did. 

Starting out as a photographer

I often get this question from younger photographers/enthusiasts - “how do I become a photographer?” My answer to them, “you don’t just become a photographer overnight. You got to find out what you are interested in and start working, creating images from there.” There surely isn’t a hard and fast rule to becoming a photographer. Some people believe you need to study photography in school and master your basics from there, others feel it is important to go out and get real world experience via apprenticeship, a few would tell you to “just go out and shoot”. Henri Cartier-Bresson did not receive formal education in photography; he received his first camera when he was under house arrest by his army squadron. Sebastiao Salgado, too, began as an economist and later on switched to photography.

When I first decided to give photography a shot, I remember it was a frigid cold winter in Korea, 2011. Few weeks before, I had completed a short stint with a renowned director in John Park, observing how shooting a commercial was like. Corporate advertisements/videography is not the same as photography, but then in the process something clicked and I knew I would like to explore a career in photography. I thought that if this mini gamble failed, I could always fall back on my educational credentials and find a “proper” job. If I didn’t try, I wouldn’t know. 

It was scary and daunting, not knowing how to navigate myself in this strange new world that I wanted very much to be a part of. Not many people know but the first thing I did was to send an email to Straits Times and asked if there were internship opportunities with their Photo Desk. My very naive 23 year old self checked my email every morning for the next 2 months hoping to hear back from the photo editor. But I never did. Retrospectively, I really was self-deluded thinking my passion and next-to-nothing portfolio could earn me a stint at ST. 

In the meantime I did manage to secure a short internship with top-tiered wedding photography company, Lightedpixels, and am always thankful for the opportunity that Kelvin gave my young eager self. 

Yet even then, I always knew I wanted to do more, much more than weddings. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore photographing weddings for like-minded people, but deep down inside I always knew my calling was with documentary. It took me awhile to find my foot but I decided that maybe I should work on a project about this very special group of people I spent a large part of my university life with - the South-Asian migrant workers. One coffee date at Chinatown market later, my friends and I decided to wing it and head to Bangladesh to listen to the stories of the migrant workers and the loved ones they left behind. 

One small idea and a huge leap of faith later, we came home with our stomachs and hearts full and beautiful stories to share to a full crowd at The Art House. This was only the start to a 3 year long passion project, Beyond the Border, Behind the Men, which saw us also getting involved in a music fundraiser and a outdoor drama production as well. Magic unfolded when we put together a group of Singaporeans and Bangladeshis to make good music and drama together. The internet was excited; we started getting a lot more attention than we ever could ask for. Jobs came streaming in. I never had to hustle. All I want to say is, do something you love and do it well.  

Welcome 2017

Just two weeks into 2017 but it is promising to be an exciting year already. 

After some deliberation and months of preparation, Juliana and I decided to relaunch Platform with the blessings and guidance of Kay Chin. For the uninitiated, Platform is a gathering of Singapore-based photographers, who use stills, video or multimedia, to tell stories. We have bi-monthly show and share sessions where we pick two to three photographers to share projects they have been working on. 

We had our first session in Jan, with Alvin Toh, Amrita Chandradas and Bob Lee sharing the good work they have been at over the last few months/years. We’ve got more interesting speakers up in the pipeline, so follow us on the Platform FB page to be in the loop.

Also, big thanks to Vulcan Post & A*List for highlighting me as one of the ten Singaporean Artist to look out for this year. Working on new stuff this year, a lot more on memory and participatory photography, so stay tuned. 

Another big project for the early half of 2017 would be photographing the Cedar Athletics Team this season. As the defending champion, they have lots to prove this year. For me, getting good access and images require building rapport with the athletes and gaining their trust. It definitely helps that I was a Cedar athlete too, though.

With approximately three more months to the Championship, I will be documenting the team through the ups and downs of their journey. Let’s go, Cedar!!!

A couple more big stories coming up next, but will share them all in due time. Follow me on instagram (@berizified) for School of Hard Knocks. Lastly, thank you all for following and supporting my work and vision. Definitely looking forward to more meaningful projects and connecting with more of you this year x

Time with Mother Wong

Growing up, I dreaded family holidays. Father was a pilot and so we were lucky to enjoy privileged tickets every year. But I’d rather be in Singapore spending time with my friends and relishing in the almost-freedom I got when the ‘cats’ were away. 

In the last couple of years, I finally woke up. It was a long time coming but then I made it a point to go for a yearly trip with my folks. It was great fun and now those memories are irreplaceable. With Father’s sudden departure in early 2015, holidays were never the same again. I feel his absence and it is something I cannot talk about publicly. It is something I’ve learnt to compartmentalise. But we have to troop on.

This year, Mother came up to Korea (where Ki and I resided for two months) for (part one of) our annual trip together. We spent most parts of it in rainy Jeju, cruising around in our trusty Accent mobile, umbrella in tow and a lot of reckless shopping (not photographed for obvious reasons). 

Part two of our annual trip together starts in three days where we head to Scandinavia, with our bags full of winter clothes and lots more funny stories together for posterity. The space Father used to occupy is now left with a gaping hole, but like Modest Mouse sings, “we will all float on alright”.

Tea with a stranger.

Now in Seoul.

So this afternoon we met another of Ki’s instagram friend, tea connoisseur, Lee Woo-kab. As with our other meetings, the language barrier makes Ki unusually reserved and I become the default translator. 

That said, we’ve been blessed to have met such hospitable folks who are genuinely interested to share much of their culture and ways with us. After lunch, Woo-kab invited us home (which doubles as his tea studio) and generously served us countless rounds of tea. Tea as old as Mother Wong. Some tasted very clean and gentle on the palate, others strong like medicine. We drank so much (four hours!!!), my blood is infused with tea now.

Far West (i)

Took two weeks off in late July and found my feet in Kashgar, Xinjiang. This is part one of my travelogue, with part two to follow below. 

By the balcony of the 100 year-old traditional tea house at the cross junction of Wusitang Boyi Road and Kumudai Erwazha Road. Just ordered a pot of saffron tea and two sticks of lamb kebab. 

As I was about to sit down beside this elderly Uighur man, he stared at me with curiosity only to let out a gentle smile when he realized that I too was looking at him. “What is this Chinese girl doing here in this predominantly male setting? She is wielding a camera and she even dares to sit with us men.” Were these thoughts running through his mind? Because that was what I imagined it to be. 

We looked at each other again in want of a conversation, yet also imbued with the understanding that language, or the lack there of, would be our deal breaker. Just then, something clicked and he muttered to me in almost incomprehensible Mandarin, “who are you?”

The smell in that corner of the Old City triggered a memory. There was a certain sense of familiarity. It reminded me of a place but try as I would, I was unable to put a finger to it at that time. But now that I think about it, it was the same smell that floated in the air in the Cambodia villages. That smell of nutmeg in the air.

Far West (ii)

I stand in awe of the mountains behind.

Dear Smelly, 

Muiido was probably a lesson planted by the producers to steel me for this episode in a yurt in Karakul. Pretty similar conditions as our “summer hut” in 2012 : 

i) no decent toilet. I had to pee in a transparent bag (at least you had a green one!), which I failed quite miserably. Thereafter, I decided to find secluded spots to relieve myself. The high altitude a guilty accomplice in making one increasingly dehydrated, upping one’s pee frequency. Sian. 

ii) My food stash is pathetic. I just finished my one and only choc biscuit. I have a cup noodle but the only drinking water they have here is “湖水可以的”. 

iii) I thought I could at least photograph the mountains + a blanket of stars, but it is total darkness outside. I might also be the very few guests around here. I’ve got no heater in this 10C weather - just four layers of clothes and layers of thick comforter. It is keeping me warm and toasty, but the comforters are so heavy, they are weighing down on my ankles. 

That said, life isn’t so bad here. Initial uneasiness of being disconnected faded fairly quickly. I’ve just finished reading “The Light Of The Fireflies” which is similar to “Room” (which you introduced me). So as you see, I have been thinking of you a lot tonight. 

Cheers pal. Hope you are comfy & snug in 202 PP Road while I reminise our good times together. WYWH. 

27 July 2016 


Last point : When I was traipsing on the green pastures earlier in the day, I had my moment with God. The scenery; His creation. I sang the very few worship songs I knew. It was so peaceful.

Came out, found a clean looking space (but is anywhere really clean from animal poop?) and settled down with my Kindle and takeaway lunch in hand. Been eating so much noodles, I decided to dabao rice from Taxhkorgan instead. Definitely tastier than it looked. Not a fan of green pepper though!!! Tossed them 1m away from me. The lambs came swiftly and left no trace of the dreaded green pepper’s existence.

Goodbye Kashgar, I quite adore you.

[Far West] In an old tea house

Spent a good hour at the 100 year-old tea house drinking saffron tea and munching on two lamb kebabs. I’ve got so much to say about this place - right from when I first entered this male domain, to when uncle (far left) and I spoke incomprehensibly to each other and so much more. But the one thought that resided deeply in me when I left was that this could be a place where writers leave writing their best novel ever.

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