[School of Hard Knocks] Interview with TwentyFifteen for School of Hard Knocks

Q : So we are supposed to believe that a Chinese girl from a middle-class family can understand the problems faced by a group of people from a totally different background? 

A : I don’t claim to know everything, but I’m learning more about them everyday. Mel calls me her “Chinese sister with Indian attitude”. In some ways, it feels like I have found my tribe, like I belong here with them. I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but I think if I were to do a story about people from a privileged background, I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. 

 ** 

In this interview with Twentyfifteen.sg, I share my thoughts about documenting Mel and company - how I started, why I started and the journey thus far. If you wanna know more, you can come by my book launch on 4th March, 7.30pm at *SCAPE treetop. It’d be fun! 

Link to interview :
http://twentyfifteen.sg/2015/02/22/twentyfifteen-interview-1420-bernice-wong-speaks-to-leonard-goh/


[MPW66] Amazing Grace

After 48 hours of deflated morale and crushed spirit, I knew things were gonna fly when I finally met 13 year-old Grace Cogan. Despite being born with Goltz syndrome, a rare multi system disorder which has left her hearing and visually impaired, and with other birth defects, she has grown up to be a fine girl with big dreams of becoming a historical fiction author. 

I highly suspect that many of us actually feel like I do when I meet someone with special needs; someone who differs from societal norms and expectations of functionality and beauty. How should I behave around them? Should I do/not do something lest it offends them? Where is that fine line between being sensitive to their limitations yet not be so presumptuous and treat them as subhumans? I struggle with that a lot. 

But meeting Grace has opened my eyes. Shadowing and interacting with her in the past week has definitely helped me get a better sense of how she’s like - actually much like who I (and probably many of us) was very many years ago. She loathes Maths, I never liked Science; she gets touchy when her mother disturbs her, I did too! Grace loveeees to read. Quiz her anything about American history and she will share with you everything you want to know. I was, and still am, quite the bookworm too. 

Gracie is a fighter. She really is. And I’ve so much respect for her indomitable spirit and resilience for life. She’s gone through surgeries after surgeries, tons of visits to the doctor, lived through and is still living through pain from her condition. But she’s not let it eat at her. I’m not sure I can be half the person she is, had I been born to the same circumstances as her. This one week at Missouri Photo Workshop has been very precious to me. I’ve learnt so much about story telling, met a class full of talented and good-hearted photographers, got inspired by the faculty (big shout out to Brian Kratzer and Lois Raimondo who were extremely nurturing!!), and got to be a tiny part of Grace’s life. I just pray that God will always keep this little girl in His favour and that our paths will cross again some time in the near future.


[School of Hard Knocks] ST feature

A project that I’ve been giving my heart and soul to the past 9 months, and for a long time more. When people you photograph become like family, you know it’s a story you won’t wanna stop working on. For awhile, I struggled with finding a story at home I could truly connect with - one which I would laugh about, fight for, and worry after. Then, this came along. It hasn’t been easy. I struggle with a lot of things, including self-censorship and managing my emotions when I hang out with this bunch. But you know what? The only way to go is forward.


SYPA Themed Body of Work 2014 + 2015.sg

Last night I was named the winner in this year’s Singapore Young Photographer Award’s “Themed Body of Work” category, for my work on Lim Chu Kang Jetty. 

 It was something I worked on rather diligently for a couple of months in 2013. I haven’t gone back to photograph that place as much as I would like to this year, but that is in the pipeline. 

 In fact, I started visiting the jetty in Jan ‘13 (that was way before I decided to document it proper in May) just to look-see i.e. kaypoh a bit, and I forgot that I made some images in the four trips there. Today, I revisited the stuff I shot back then, and it brought back a lot of memories.

In addition to the above announcement, I’m happy to share that I’ve been invited to contribute to Twentyfifteen’s series of 20 books. Twentyfifteen, an initiative of Platform, will see twenty photographers publish books related to/about Singapore, as we celebrate Singapore’s 50th year of independence in 2015.


[Pluspoint] Indiegogo campaign

How I like to spend my days - with the Pluspoint family. This week, the boys have been practising very hard for a gig at SCAPE, and they are doing damn swell. 

This is also Day 2 of our Indiegogo campaign and we’re very humbled by the support we’ve been getting. Our video has had 14k hits, and we’ve raised 1870 USD thus far. We hope to raise 6000 USD in 20 days to buy speakers, dance costumes and food money, which will definitely help us in fighting for top spot in next year’s prestigious Dhool competition. 

This campaign might sound quite frivolous to some of you, but to the boys, your support will mean a lot. Having spent the past 8 months together, I have seen how dance has helped to keep them off the streets, and given them a goal to work towards. 

Here’s the link to our campaign - http://bit.ly/1oAegMO- and you can also watch the multimedia piece I worked on in the earlier half of the year.


[Pluspoint] Class & habits

Since the start of the year, I’ve been working on a story of a group of dancers, Pluspoint. Pluspoint is a dance group led by Mel, 34, mother of 7 and an ex-convict. She uses her lived experiences and clout to keep at-risk youths off the street through dance and by acting as a sounding board to them. The borders of entry and exit to this group is quite porous; we’ve a core group of people, but even this supposed core group changes every now and then. 

Just a bit more context - all of the dancers are aged between 17 to 25, and hail from a working class background. Some of them are still schooling in ITE, while the others take on ad hoc, low-skilled jobs like cleaning, setting up for conventions etc. They usually gather at Mel’s one-room rental house in the evenings for dance practices or to simply hang out.

It was quite interesting for me this evening as I accompanied them for their guest dance at Our Better World’s Good Story competition award ceremony held at the National Museum of Singapore. Tonight was an example of how class lines seems quite hardened in Singapore, and this was something the boys were conscious about as well, as they passed remarks about the food and the way people carried themselves. 

M was quick to point out when a lady spoke to him that “their english damn power” and “I don’t know what they talking sial” (code-switching is a damn useful skill methinks). P also said in jest, as he was walking to the buffet spread, that “maybe we, pariahs, won’t like high class people food lah”. It was evident to me that they felt out of place in a setting like the National Museum, and at an event where people were dressed for the occasion. There was quite a clear distinction - ‘us’ and ‘them’ - as the boys opted to sit outside the museum, by the steps, where they could smoke as well as be away from the crowd and setting they were unfamiliar with. 

Well, they were aware of certain social codes they had to prescribe to at an event like this. They were relatively muted for awhile. During rehearsals in the gallery theatre, P shared that he was “not used to this. This is the quietest we’ve ever been.”. A was quick to add that the silence added a buzzing sound to his ear. When they had time to kill before the start of the event, they hung out just outside the museum and obviously felt more at home immediately.

That said, this evening was not only an eye-opener for them, I also think they did enjoy the bits post-show when members of the audience came up to thank them and congratulated them on their dance. P was happy to give them high-fives and very cheekily said that “high class people like our dance sial.” 

I’m not gonna be naive and think that tonight’s episode bridged any gaps - our worlds may forever be distinct and apart - but I’m just glad that the boys got an opportunity to see and interact with another side of society, one that they would otherwise shy from.


Experiencing and understanding class and diversity in Singapore

On May 15th, I was invited by my dear friend, Dr Ye Junjia, to speak at an academic conference “Encountering Urban Diversity in Asia: Class and Other Intersections” organised by the Migration Clusters of Asia Research Institute, and Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore. While the workshop was catered to an academic audience, my presentation came from a more personal angle, where I shared two narratives to illustrate class and diversity in Singapore. 

The first one was about my personal journey as a young Singaporean and a volunteer at local migrant worker NGO, TWC2. I started volunteering at TWC2 in 2009 when a friend introduced the soup kitchen project to me. Since I had some free time on my hands, I thought, “why not?”. Prior to that volunteering stint, I had almost no interaction with migrant workers. In fact, I was conditioned since young to avoid eye contact or any exchanges with these low waged, low skilled migrant workers. Blame it on middle class insecurities if you must. 

However, I soon began to realise that these migrant men were far from the stereotypes and impressions of them that I had in my head. Definitely not dangerous, pedophilic or malicious. They turned out to be very friendly, even hospitable, and were simply looking to have earnest conversations with me. They shared about their working conditions and life in Singapore, about their families back home, and their hopes and dreams for the future. I soon found myself looking forward to every Wednesdays when I would be volunteering at the soup kitchen project, because it was not only a good break from the monotony of my undergraduate schedule, but I enjoyed the conversations. 

In 2012, I decided that it was perhaps time to do something a bit more for my migrant friends and their community. Together with two friends, we went to Bangladesh to learn a bit more about their lives and to understand the different social roles and relationships we were otherwise not privy to. This was really in an attempt to showcase another side of the migrant men, beyond the label of a construction worker. With the support of the National Arts Council, we held a film screening and exhibition at the Arts House in the same year and reach out to a few hundred people. 

When we were in Bangladesh, what stood out for me was how these migrant men were treated very differently, largely by virtue of their migration journey. They were obviously respected members of the community; there was an elevated status of sorts. You’d see their portraits hung up in the middle of the living room, photo albums of them lying on the shelves, amongst other conspicuous ways these guys were celebrated. It was salient that diversity and class is something very place-specific. The migrant man may be socially excluded, invisible and unappreciated in Singapore, but this same guy is actually someone of importance and value in his community back home. 

The second story I shared at the conference was a rather unique story of my migrant friend, Shabdar Ali. Shabdar is one of the thousands of migrant men in Singapore who have had their work permits cancelled (some owing to work-place accidents, others to salary disputes or illegal deployment etc.) and given a special pass. He was involved in a serious work place accident. His co-workers thought he was dead and hesitated calling an ambulance for him. The doctors were also not hopeful about his case. This multimedia piece will provide more context to Shabdar’s life. 

One would think that someone like Shabdar would be ostracised even more because of his disability, on top of intersections of race, ethnicity and class. However, as his condition got better, we see Shabdar growing in confidence and stepping up to be an informal leader to other migrant men - dispensing advice, providing translation services and being a listening ear to many of them. He began to carry some clout in his community. Shabdar also had ‘access’ to interactions with other Singaporeans and volunteers. He shared that prior to his accident, he had no opportunities to befriend Singaporeans. His daily routine, being housed in a dormitory far from central Singapore, and certain social codes (like don’t ‘disturb’ Singapore girls) as taught by senior migrant workers, left him far removed from Singapore society. Unlike now. 

My concluding thoughts for this sharing session was really about how it’s interesting for me to see that class and diversity as very place and time specific for these migrant workers. 

This issue of class has been surfacing and been a salient part of the documentary work that I’ve been doing, and I look forward to penning more thoughts about it.


Visiting Luce’s family in Iloilo

As the third week of April approached, there were moments when I felt slightly hesitant to make the trip to Iloilo, largely because of deadlines and tasks ahead. But a promise made, is a promise meant to be kept. Plus, it was something discussed last November. Deep down inside, I knew that if I forgo this trip, I might live to regret it. 

In my time there, I was privy to the life of Luce, my domestic helper who has been with us for 18 years - the life she had left behind. You know, it is one thing to hear stories of home and her family, but it’s another thing altogether to put a face to these names, have meaningful exchanges with people close to her and see the house her remittance was used for. 

It’s been almost two decades in Singapore; she has since upgraded from a tiny bamboo shack to a humble abode made of concrete. While I thought it still lacked some fine finishing touches – since there were no tiles/linoleum sheet; some ply wood partitioned room; and the absence of the usual painted walls, Luce remarked that there was “no need for big house, now we have the outside porch, it is good enough. Just be happy with what we have can already.” They recently added a small 8 x 2m porch by the side of the house to host guests. The cost was covered by the sale of their recent corn harvest and Shona Mae’s remittances (she currently works as a domestic worker in Macau to supplement the family’s income). Luce’s salary goes to funding her second daughter, Joy’s, university education. 

Life in the village is simple. Some days, they eat rice with one dish. If there are relatives staying over, no one fights for the bed. They lay the floor with blankets and make do with it. They are fine with hand-me-downs. On a couple of occasions, I recognized a couple of tops, which once sat forgotten in my cupboard, fitted snuggly on someone else. 

What touched me most was to meet her family and the hospitality they accorded me. Initially, I was slightly apprehensive. Will there be an air of hostility – since the employer’s daughter, the one whom they had to share their mother’s love with, is there? I cannot even begin to imagine how life would be like if my own mother left me when I was aged 4 or 7 for such a long period of time, only visiting for a few weeks every two years. But thankfully, they treated me like family. Shona Mae, who was also on home leave, brought me out to meet her friends and to visit different barangays (villages). She made sure I was still doing fine when I was squeezing hip to hip with other passengers on the jeepney. She also bought me lots of local delights to bring home. Joy, on the other hand, was slightly more reserved but just as attentive. I thought we had a nice conversation by the chicken coop one day as we watched the evening light shine down those fields of gold. 

I thought a lot during this trip – about life chances and the poverty cycle; about family relationship and power dynamics – but that’s for another time. I’m gonna cap off this post with my favourite image of the Mamon family. Felt it was only right to help them make some family portraits together, so we spent an evening in the fields. I can’t quite remember what they were laughing about, but here’s to many more happy and healthy days ahead.


[Breath Of Life] In Memory Of

On the­ stuffy journey back to Phnom Penh this morning, I found my mind drifting off, my way of whiling away the time in this really poorly ventilated bus. 

It’s been 15 days in Cambodia. Today marks the end of my third visit here to work on an ongoing photo-documentary series about maternal and neonatal heath (and healthcare) in the country. What a ride it has been (has it really been 16 months? Really?)!! 

Just like many other documentary photographers, this project kind of fell into my lap. Or maybe not entirely. In 2012, I was very fortunate to have been selected to be part of the 8th Angkor Photo Workshop. At 24, very new to the scene, hardly any portfolio or experience to show, I can only thank my lucky stars for that golden opportunity. It was my virgin attendance at a photo workshop, and I was obviously very excited. Few weeks before going to Cambodia, I began researching for interesting stories I could take on, but was very discouraged as I ploughed through the web and found nothing. Was I really gonna show up without an idea? 

Many sleepless nights later, I found –that- perfect project. It was gonna be tricky navigating and negotiating for access to hospitals and villages to see how life really was like for pregnant women, the delivery process and also the health complications that faced both neonates and mothers. But I was convinced that the more difficult the project is, the more valuable the output would be. Naïve– maybe? 

 ***

I remember watching my first delivery in Bangladesh in mid 2012. The hospital in Nilphamari, north of Bangladesh, smelled of death. The walls were grimy, there were patients sprawled on the floor due to the shortage of beds, the air was stale. Upon stepping in, I felt sick. 

I stood at the far corner in the delivery room, turning my eyes away whenever I felt a knot in my stomach. I was really afraid. I kept looking at my watch; it took forever. So when the baby finally came out, I was relieved. 

I walked out of the room and the patients’ family looked over at me, waiting for my assessment. I thought all was fine, so I gave an ‘okay’ sign and smiled. Immediately after, the hospital plunged into complete darkness. It was quite a common occurrence, these blackouts. Then, I saw the nurses rush the baby over to another room, guided by the weak beam from their handphone lights. I scrambled after. They were trying to operate the oxygen tank to resuscitate the baby, but, there was no electricity and they had not switched on the generator yet. I didn’t know what to do; I did not want to get in anybody’s way so I stood rooted to the ground. Minutes later, the junior doctor glanced at me and said coldy, “birth asphyxia”. It was a strange turn of events. I teared in my sleep that night. 

 ** 

On my second trip to Cambodia in Sept 2013, I was granted access to a couple of health centres in Kampong Cham, Stung Treng and Kratie province. In our 17 days there, we only managed to watch 1 delivery. One. But that is another story for another time. 

However, while watching that one delivery, I was reminded of a distant memory. Not of that episode in Bangladesh. But, of my secondary school E-Maths teacher who died from child birth. When news of it broke to me, I was baffled. I was in Junior College at that time, and was holding my plate of roti prata in the canteen. “You mean people will die of child birth one meh?”, I recalled thinking to myself. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. But watching this particular childbirth and seeing the woman wince in pain, it hit home hard. That maternal, and neonatal, mortality is very real, especially so in developing country where access and education is limited.

I don’t think Mrs Ng had a very good impression of me. Not with those poor scores and stinky attitude. But these days, I think of her alot. She’s one of my motivations when it gets awfully lonely and trying to carry on doing this project. I hope she’s finally proud of me.


[Breath of Life] God’s miracle.

The woman was severely anaemic and hemorrhaging badly. The doctors hesitated for awhile before deciding to go ahead - it was a risk they were ready to take. It did seem like it was all or nothing at all. They slit her swiftly, took the baby out, but it never made a sound. It was pale, slightly greyish. It looked like death. And for the next hour, I stood outside the theatre with the team of medical staff who were trying to resuscitate the baby. It was intense. They were trying all means - inserting oxygen tubes, tapping and massaging the limbs and chest, sucking out liquid from the nose and throat. As an observer standing by the side, it felt like I was watching a foreign film with no subtitles. I obviously did not know what they were saying, and had absolutely no clue whether the baby was getting better until the nurse placed the stethoscope to my ear and I heard a faint heartbeat. This is God’s little miracle. 


Today, I have new found respect for all the medical staff toiling endlessly and for making it count. I sure hope the baby and mother will pull through the next few crucial weeks and be in the pink of health again. This, really, also is an affirmation for me to keep working on this series, not only to bring more attention to healthcare and the need for better facilities, more training and education in Cambodia, but also to celebrate these medical personnels whom I’ve come to befriend and think deserve better.

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