Welcome to Singapore

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.

Jess and Marina

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.

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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.

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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.

Shabbat Shalom

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.

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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.

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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 will be leading workshops for young writers exploring Tiong Bahru over the next month. Find out more, here.

Don’t forget to check out Jessica’s photos on Tumblr, her twitter feed and our facebook page!

Jessica’s Tales of Two Cities residency is made possible through the generous support of the Australian Chamber of Commerce (AustCham) in Singapore.

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