Welcome to another week in Singapore, where again, nothing stops.
Singapore really is the city that never sleeps…not only because there’s so much to do, but because 8 hours of sleeping is 8 hours where you could be eating.
Food is important here…if you haven’t already got that vibe from my previous posts and Tumblr page.
Singapore is also an incredibly vibrant city in which to be an artist, because it feels like there’s always something new and very different happening.
For example, in the last week, I went to:
- a feminist reading night as part of the Etiquette Festival, where a range of women read poetry, spoken word, stories and performed music.
- A night of playreadings of Checkpoint Theatre‘s Huzir Sulaiman’s graduate playwriting students, where a group of peers performed each other’s new writing to a warm crowd and, oh yes, a group dinner.
- The gala night of W!ld Rice’s Jack and the Beansprout, where instead of the normal Australian post-show event of a few nibblies and gallons of wine, the audience was treated to a swanky buffet dinner. Furthermore, the entire cast came out into the foyer in their costumes, to take photos with over-excited audience members (that is, children and visiting Australian playwrights). It was a great opportunity to see how companies like W!ld Rice facilitate post-show conversation and natural networking. (Read my interview with Jack and the Beansprout scribe Joel Tan, here).
This past week was also the beginning of my series of workshops with writers from Singapore.
Firstly, a workshop for slightly older writers with the aim of forming a support network to create work and learn new generative techniques together. We had a very fun workshop in the Grey Projects library, where the writers were asked to respond to the current exhibition of works in the Grey Projects gallery space.
I realised what a special opportunity it is to be a resident writer in an arts space; to find the links between visual art and text, and to see if different forms can complement each other.
To continue my story, I’ll need you to follow me down Kim Tian Road, past the art deco apartments, wind your way along the fringe of the green space, and pass Hua Bee Coffee Shop on your way to my next appointment.
Hua Bee has been around since the 1950s, but closed recently due a combination of factors. The spiralling rent in these areas as the hipster value of this suburb hikes up is a major concern for the elderly store owners. But with these challenges has come a strain of creative thinking from the entrepreneurs of Tiong Bahru – the idea of a “two-faced” restaurant has emerged.
By day, Hua Bee is a traditional fishball soup cafe, and by night, a swanky yakitori restaurant named Bincho. Another café down the road, TwoFace, has done just the same: noodles by day, pizza by night. It’s inspiring and a nice human compromise in the face of inevitable development here. The old and the new can live side-by-side.
Keep walking, passing the Resident Centre where I got to watch some senior citizens cut loose to Chinese karaoke songs last week, and make your way to the Tiong Bahru Community Centre, a buzzing open space full of ping pong championships, basketball playoffs, and a community of people sharing a table and that morning’s breaking news. Here is where I’m hosting a workshop for teenage writers called ‘Finding Your Voice’.
This workshop is an introduction to dramatic writing with the aim of creating a monologue by the end of the 4 sessions together. Situating the workshop in my current base, Tiong Bahru, has offered us the unique opportunity to respond to our surroundings. For example, a casual “scavenger hunt” in the Tiong Bahru hawker centre has generated some great material for next week’s workshop.
It has been a lot of fun to work with smart and creative people of a variety of ages and to see what sort of work we can create together. I look forward to seeing what our final project looks like.See you next time to update you on things seen, things written, and obviously, things eaten.
- Tiong Bahru (hnreadwriter.wordpress.com)
- In Modern Singapore, Some Wax Nostalgic (online.wsj.com)
- Anthony Bourdain’s Hawker Centre Sanctuary – Tiong Bahru in Singapore (tripque.wordpress.com)
- Tiong Bahru Roasted Duck (villeyoung.wordpress.com)
I was lucky enough to work with Joel on a reading of my play Shabbat Dinner, which I’ve blogged about previously here.
Joel is a writer and performer. He read English at the National University of Singapore and studied playwriting with Huzir Sulaiman. Since then, he has gone on to write and direct for the stage with varsity groups as well as major theatre companies in Singapore. Productions of his writing for the stage include Family Outing (2011) for the Man Singapore Theatre Festival, People (2013) for USP Productions, The House (2013) for Flamenco Sin Fronteras, Mosaic (2013) for the Lit Up Festival 2013 and W!ld Rice’s annual musical pantomime, Jack and the Beansprout! (2013). Joel is an Associate Artist with Checkpoint Theatre.
As mentioned, Jack and the Bean Sprout is currently playing at the Drama Centre Theatre. Once a year, the fabulous W!ld Rice Theatre Company produce a Singaporean version of a classic story to usher their audiences into the holiday spirit. Jack and the Bean Sprout, written by Joel and directed by recent Cultural Medallion winner Ivan Heng, is a boisterous, cheeky, and yet very touching adaptation of the classic story of Jack and the Beanstalk.I spoke to Joel last week about his work, his relationship to his home city, and more:
What words do you think sum up your writing?
Personal, wry, loving.
What drives you to write plays?
When I dream up, witness, hear about or live through a story that I want to tell, I start to write a play.
What is your current and/or next project?
I wrote the book and lyrics for this year’s W!ldrice pantomime, Jack and the Beansprout!, and that’s currently going through tech birthing pains (it opens 21st November). Future projects include some directing work for simple presentational readings of plays– Dan Koh’s event DERACINATE on the 26th of November, and the Checkpoint Theatre Associate Artist Readings from the 8-11th of December. January sees a restaging of my play People by Creative Edge, the youth wing of I-Theatre.
What is your dream future project?
I’d like to have the time and brain-space to complete a play I’m working on which condenses these big, confusing feelings and ideas I have about Singapore into a series of interlocking stories about very simple, ordinary people.
What are your favourite and least favourite spots in Singapore?
Favourite spot is that impossibly quiet little stretch along the Singapore River near the Asian Civilisation museum where in the day the CBD’s reflection is caught in the water, and at night the lights from the office buildings are hauntingly beautiful. Least favourite spot is the vulgar Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.
What is your favourite arts venue in town?
I love-hate the Playden at the Arts House. Love because it’s where I’ve worked with a lot of other young theatre-makers to put up our work. It’s a fairly fuss-free space, cheap and familiar. I hate it because it has a very poorly maintained lights grid, which I realise now actually gives the place some character.
What is your favourite play/film/artwork about Singapore?
Arthur Yap’s the space of city trees.
What is your favourite hawker centre?
Lavender Food Square along Jalan Besar. They’ve got everything and it’s all very good.
What is your favourite recipe to cook at home?
After I acquired a big cast iron pot I tend to just throw things into it and cook it all overnight. But I think I like making chicken soup the most. I make it from scratch, including the stock, and only on rainy days.
What do you think Singapore looks like in 20 years time?
I think it will look alternately like someone’s dream and nightmare city. I think in 20 years time it will finally have flushed out those with pastoral dreams, and it will give inspiration to those who write the city with a pastoral vision.
Thanks so much, Joel! Make sure to catch Jack and the Beansprout before the season ends, by booking here.
Part of my residency in Singapore involves the opportunity to hang out with a lot of very exciting artists – playwrights, directors, poets, musicians, and more – and learn about their practice.
It works like this:
- I meet an artist.
- I ask them a bunch of questions, which they answer beautifully.
- I share their answers with you.
Who better to kick off the series than a very talented poet and teacher, Pooja Nansi.
Pooja has just released a new book of poetry, which makes you either cry in the cafe where you’re reading it, or feel things that are inappropriate for feeling in a cafe (by which I mean: this is some passionate poetry), and we spoke about her practice, her relationship to Singapore, and more, below!
Pooja Nansi is a teacher and poet, and also one half of a spoken word and music duo, The Mango Dollies. Her first collection of poetry, Stiletto Scars, was launched at Singapore Writers Festival 2007. She has performed and conducted workshops extensively in several educational institutes both locally and abroad. She has also participated in poetry projects such as Speechless (with the British Council), where she worked with poets from UK, Ireland, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, and engaged in a month-long tour of the UK to explore issues surrounding freedom of speech. She curates a monthly spoken word event at Artistry called Speakeasy which has attracted poets from places as diverse as Burma and Botswana, and her second collection of poems Love is an Empty Barstool was published by Math Paper Press in November 2013.
1. What words do you think sum up your writing?
Honest. Personal. Vulnerable. Fearless.
2. What drives you to write poetry?
I like the compact nature of poetry, how it forces you to think hard about what makes a moment significant or meaningful. How something which is a very personal moment to you, actually tends to speak universally to people who have had similar experiences. There’s always a challenge to articulate things that are hard to articulate, it’s a bit of a dance with words, exchanging partners till you find just the right one. I enjoy the puzzle solving. Also, one of my favourite poets, Anne Sexton said it the best. “The beautiful feeling after writing a poem is on the whole better even than after sex, and that’s saying a lot.
3. What is your current and/or next project?
I just launched my second collection, but that was a sort of a ‘best of’ the poems I had written between 2006 and 2013. Currently, I am working on a series of letters to people, places,things, feelings, thoughts. That’s the best way I know how to describe it. It feels a little different from the poems I have written, and its a real labour of love which I want to take my time with. What I am looking forward to in the very immediate future is a small launch of Love is An Empty Barstool in London with my best friend singing the blues to the poems in the collection.
4. What is your dream future project?
I fantasise about putting up a spoken word show with some elements of theatre and sound design, maybe even multimedia, with a star cast of my favourite contemporary poets who I think are amazing readers, getting a director to put it together and having it do a full run in a theatre space. I feel very strongly about making poetry accessible and debunking the myth that it is unapproachable or only for a certain type of intellectual. Poetry can make things happen. I also want to do something kick ass with you, Jess!
(BACK ATCHA!- Jess)
5. What are your favourite and least favourite spots in Singapore?
Some of my favourite spots on this island are Haji Lane at night because it kind of organically sprouts into this mad, eclectic street party, Parkway Parade which is a mall in Marine Parade, but one that I’ve been going to as a child and very much feels like home, The MacDonalds at Liang Court because it’s where I’ve ended up with my friends after every amazing drunken night and of course BooksActually in Tiong Bahru which is the most amazing bookshop you’ll ever find.
My least favourite spot is Orchard Road on a weekend because it feels soulless and manic. I also hate the Marina Bay Sands building and the Shoppes at Marina Bay, mainly because they are called “shoppes” but also because nothing about it says anything about who we are as a country, it’s clearly catered to creating an idealised, sterilised luxury mirage of what Singapore is about to tourists.
6. What is your favourite arts venue in town?
Artistry Cafe at Jalan Pinang. I curate a monthly spoken word night there called Speakeasy, but besides that they are a lovely space with an amazing sound system, killer coffee, draft beers and a diabolical tiramisu. And Marcel and Prashant who run the place are the coolest most easy going, helpful and generous people you will ever encounter. They also host art exhibitions, singer-songwriter nights and play readings.
7. What is your favourite play/film/artwork about Singapore?
I love Haresh Sharma’s “Those who can’t teach” which is a really honest take on the Education system and what it means to teach in Singapore. I also love Alvin Pang’s poem “What it means to be landless” which says so much about how our physical environment shapes us. There’s too many to mention, but these two stick out.
8. What is your favourite hawker centre?
Tekka Market! And also the little shop right next to it called KamalaVillas which sells the most divine ghee paper thosai and masala chicken.
9. What is your favourite recipe to cook at home?
I’m a pretty decent cook and I like experimenting a lot with food, I make a pretty mean risotto, but my all time favourite thing to make myself when I am in need of comfort and rest is Maggi Mee Curry Noodles. I am Singaporean after all.
10. What do you think Singapore looks like in 20 years time?
I couldn’t tell you. In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have thought it would look the way it does now this 20 years ago. But my wish is that we don’t become one giant mall and that we pay attention to the spaces that speak of our heritage, no matter how small or how inconveniently placed they are. An example is when they demolished the old National Library building to make way for a tunnel. Near broke my heart. So fingers crossed that my generation and the next have loud enough voices to make sure the places that matter, stay.
See you guys next week for your next artist!
- More female performance poets or simply more successful ones? (theguardian.com)
- Poetry (standinginthestorm.wordpress.com)
- Sarah Kay: Intro to Spoken Word (wordsonspokenword.wordpress.com)
- Dinner With Carol (or being stung) (mtw1tter.wordpress.com)
Australian playwright Jessica Bellamy is in Singapore, as a writer in residence in Tiong Bahru. For our Tales of Two Cities blog, Jessica will be charting her 6 weeks in Singapore, as she talks to leading arts figures, collaborates with Singaporean artists and finds out about Singapore, generally while eating. Find out more about Jessica, here and follow Tales of Two Cities on Facebook, here. Here begins the blog…
The New Burial Ground
Before I came to Singapore, I had an image in my head of a typical cityscape. High rise buildings, 9-5 office workers, every nook and cranny protected by air conditioning, and malls akimbo. Also a sculpture that looks like a trident with an airplane on top of it, which shoots out green laser beams at 8pm every night.
That’s one part of Singapore, but it’s not where I’m staying. For the 6 weeks of my residency, I will be living in Tiong Bahru, a neighbourhood still very close to the city, but with an identity of its own. I’m resident artist at Grey Projects, a multi-disciplinary art space with the best library I’ve ever seen.
Tiong Bahru is a mixture of Chinese and Malay words, and means “new cemetery”. It has a much older demographic than other parts of Singapore. There is a thriving wet market and hawker centre, the first in Singapore. The blocks of flats are much smaller than the huge high rises that dwarf them on the horizon. Most importantly, you can get a plate of carrot cake for breakfast for $2.50 and a kopi for 90 cents.
On both ends of one street you’ll find a Monkey God Temple, a traditional bakery (with the butteriest tapioca square you’ll ever taste in your life), a hipster optometrist and a day spa with specialty-built packing crates in which you’ll get a massage. Meander down the road and you’ll find one of the best bookstores in the country, Books Actually, which boasts 3 resident cats, one of whom hates me.
It is wonderful.
I arrived in Singapore at 3.30pm on a Monday, only to go straight to my rehearsal at Checkpoint Theatre.
I had written a piece called Shabbat Dinner earlier in 2013 for the Tamarama Rock Surfers Bondi Feast Festival, directed and dramaturged by Anthony Skuse. As part of my residency in Singapore, I was given the opportunity to experience a locally produced reading of the play.
Shabbat Dinner is a very culturally specific piece about the experience of being a Jewish woman coming from a history of survivors. It was written with the knowledge that its premiere production would be in Bondi Beach, an area where Jewish history and culture is a major part of the landscape.
I wondered how it might resonate in an entirely different country and culture; one where a Jewish community exists, but it is not by any means a very visible one.
I realised I was in very safe hands with my friend and collaborator Joel Tan, a local playwright, director and performer, as well as Associate Artist with Checkpoint Theatre. His production, performed first at Lowercase at LASALLE College of The Arts and then at the lovely Artistry Cafe, was beautiful and thrilling. He found a way of uniting our chorus of female performers via the universal links of the piece – as feminists, as family members, as survivors of their own histories and religious traditions. It was most powerful to see the way in which music brought people together. Hearing Singaporean voices sing in Hebrew will be something I’ll never forget. (Check out photos from the readings, here.)
The Other Stuff
There’s so much more to this residency that I can only touch on now, but will continue to draw on in the weeks to come.
Most overarching is my realisation that Singapore is so far from the uptight, controlled city that people might think. The artists here are naughty and hilarious, making avant garde theatre and saucy performance art. For example, an exhibition called Singirl, which takes photographs of women’s bare bottoms to merge into artworks.
Singlish continues to elude and excite me, with words like “chim” (meaning hugely intelligent and a bit hoity-toity) and “lah” (an emphasis at the end of a sentence that I constantly get wrong) seeping, grammatically incorrectly, into my vocabulary.
This is a society where a typical “how’s it going” greeting is “have you taken your lunch?” My answer is always “yes, of course” because the food here is so fabulous that you find yourself eating all day long. More on that next time, because it really deserves its own post.
I’ll be back with a wrap-up each week, as well as regular interviews with leading Singaporean artists whom I’d like you to know about, dear readers.
Until then…have you taken your lunch?
Jessica’s Tales of Two Cities residency is made possible through the generous support of the Australian Chamber of Commerce (AustCham) in Singapore.