By Jo Tan
Here to Stay
Published on 26 January 2017
They all came to Singapore for different reasons — some by chance, some by choice. What unifies many of these talents from various continents is how they have added to the colour and vibrancy of the local arts scene. Each in their own way has helped shape and transform the way we experience the arts — from music to dance, from film to poetry, from children’s theatre to visual arts. We meet a few of these passionate movers and shakers who came as visitors but decided to stay and create here.
ISABELLE DESJEUX - Authority in Arts for the Young
“What both disciplines have in common is the sentence, ‘I don’t know’, which opens the door to curiosity, and potentially, worlds not yet explored,” says the artist, whose work often resembles scientific experiments. “The best scientists always have to ask questions. Even art students, when drawing, must constantly reassess what they see. Their teacher cannot provide a ‘right’ answer: their eyes see something different since they’re never sitting in the student’s place.”
While teaching kids, Desjeux realised her artistic approach wasn’t that different from theirs. “Kids are scientists and artists by default — they ask many questions, and curiosity leads them to start projects. Many of my own artworks were inspired by conversations with my young daughters, or observing children’s responses to puzzling encounters.”
Desjeux was moved to keep encouraging childish inquisitiveness as a starting point for creativity. “Sometimes, parents expect that even after a gruelling school day, children should come to an art class and again be told exactly the right thing to do. Well, I don’t ‘teach’ art, I make introductions to it. I can’t see the point of getting students to imitate a specific technique, I want to get them excited enough to experiment on their own. Becoming artists would require them to appropriate techniques for themselves.”
This philosophy made her a perfect fit for the role of creative director of Playeum Children’s Centre for Creativity’s inaugural season. “Playeum’s goal is to inspire a new generation of children who are creative through playing. I was in charge of overseeing the Centre and creating an artistic environment where they naturally want to try things. Often, children will ask, ‘What do I do next?’ You say, ‘Actually, I don’t know, what do you think?’ That’s where the fun starts.”
Desjeux is currently focusing on creating art installations at her studio/gallery L’Observatoire. While not at all child-targeted, she welcomes curious preschool kids from the vicinity to pop by.
MILENKO PRVACKI - Visual Artist
When acclaimed artist Milenko Prvacki came to Singapore 25 years ago, he thought it’d be a short trip. “I was asked to come for one month and help with some dioramas for the (now-defunct) Singapore Maritime Museum. All I brought was short pants and some schnapps.”
Prvacki was caught off-guard when asked to stay for the project’s two-year duration. However, civil wars and insurgencies were urgently escalating in his native Yugoslavia, and he thought he might as well accept. “Within six years, Yugoslavia disappeared.”
Despite the uncertainty, and for years, statelessness, Prvacki never stopped working. He learnt English from scratch and continuously made art — often inspired by his displacement — from whatever he could find, including newspapers lining the empty shelves of his rented house.
“In Singapore then, there was only the National Museum and two private art galleries. But even without opportunity to exhibit, I still worked.” After an exhibition at LASALLE College of the Arts, he was offered a teaching position at its Faculty of Fine Arts, which he accepted — initiating a major shakeup in the system. “Sometimes in Singapore, education is less about learning and more about reproducing what you were given. Art cannot be about this. As dean, I changed the structure to make art students more able to create projects independently. I also introduced group critique sessions… students cried because they weren’t used to criticism. Also, parents were angry at not getting their money’s worth when I cut down teaching time from 30 hours a week, though art is practice-based and students didn’t have time to practice. I didn’t feel pressure from this, artists can’t fear challenges. I’m always telling students to get out of the comfort zone.”
Now a Singapore citizen and Cultural Medallion recipient who’s helped groom generations of original local artists like Jane Lee and Ruben Pang, Prvacki continues preaching initiative, independence and innovation.
“I sit on many panels including the National Arts Council Advisory Panel,” he says. “While on a panel for the Renaissance City Strategic Plan, I remember saying, ‘Renaissance City doesn’t mean Singapore is in the 14th century appreciating established art from Italy.’ Renaissance means creating what is new. In Europe, everything is done, has been done, but here the arts scene has been and is still growing, and it’s fantastic to be part of that.”
PAUL PISTORE - Puppeteer & Practical Effects Creator
Award-winning Hollywood alumnus Paul Pistore’s beginnings in Singapore weren’t all that joyful. “I’ve worked on movies like Batman Returns, Alien Resurrection and Men in Black 2. But computer graphics were making my particular field (special effects art, puppetry and animatronics performance) less and less in demand. Since I also did voice-overs, my agent recommended I start focusing on those,” says Pistore, explaining why he came to direct and voice Japanese anime dubs in Singapore with now-defunct company Studio Odex. “Then, the bottom fell out of the voice-over market. I ended up asking around if there was any work I could do while in town.”
Pistore was introduced to children’s theatre company I Theatre, where he designed and built incredible props and puppets. Then, he was quickly headhunted to do the same for Universal Studios Singapore, and has now co-founded his own company, Core Crew Fx (CCFX). Its impressive credits include designing and building human-sized puppets equipped with elaborate mechanisms for Legoland’s special-effects packed Ninjago show in Japan, Malaysia and Dubai, as well as Hiccup and Sneeze’s eponymous puppet leads, which are so popular on Okto, they’ll soon be seen on Australian screens.
“As creators of practical effects (live special effects), including specialty props and puppets, we have been contacted by many shows — live events, movie and TV shoots. Even Hollywood is realising that while CGI [computer-generated imagery] looks amazing, there isn’t that visceral feeling that gets people engaged.”
Yet Pistore doesn’t foresee himself heading back to Hollywood. “We’re very proud of being a Singapore company and hearing producers say, ‘You mean we can get things of this standard done in Singapore? I don’t have to pay exorbitant prices to import things from the US?’ This can only help make Singapore more attractive to major projects from all over the world. It hasn’t been easy training talent up from level zero since this is such a new field here, but our crew is passionate. They’re now able to work in an industry they never thought they had a chance to work in here.”
FRAN BORGIA - Film Producer
“I’ve always loved Asian cinema,” says Borgia, who’s also produced numerous short and medium-length Singapore films — that won accolades at various European festivals — and influenced many young film-makers as a teacher in various institutions. “So when I saw an exchange programme that my university (the University of Barcelona) had with Ngee Ann Polytechnic, I thought, why not?”
It wasn’t only local films he fell in love with: fellow film student Joey Lam — now his wife — gave him a reason to stay. Borgia set up Akanga to get an Entrepreneur Pass, and his passion kept the jobs rolling in.
Now, Borgia is well and truly part of Singapore’s film fraternity, proudly introducing himself as a Singapore film-maker at festivals and screenings. “This is where I live, work and have met the right people. Some people might be less excited about the association with Singapore, dismissing local films as formulaic. But I think: rather than comment, why not try and change things? These 14 years, I’ve been involved in many projects that I am proud of.”
SHEILA WEE - Storyteller
As co-founder of Singapore’s first storytelling circle, its first professional storytelling company and the Storytelling Association, she’s been mentor at some point to just about all our island’s professional storytellers. It’s no wonder Sheila Wee has been called the Godmother of Singapore Storytelling.
“Before following my husband to Singapore in 1982, I trained in early childhood education and worked as a nanny in the United Kingdom. Here, I ran a playgroup and taught in a nursery… I was telling stories for years without realising it was a real profession,” she laughs. “Then in 1998, I attended a workshop by American storyteller Cathy Spagnoli and I was blown away by how she was able to capture our attention; make us laugh and weep, just by sharing the right story wholeheartedly with an audience.”
Today, Wee has moved countless adults as well as youngsters with her tales.
“Once I told this Nepalese folktale about a grandfather whose impoverished son wanted to carry him in a basket to the temple, leaving him there so his own child would have more to eat. The child said, ‘Remember to bring the basket back — I’ll use it to take you to the temple too when you are old.’
“Crafting the story, I linked it to my parents who suffered from Alzheimer’s back in the United Kingdom, while I had to stay here and care for my children. How do you juggle between continents and generations? There were many expatriates in the audience with tears running down their cheeks.”
Wee also helps organise the new 398.2 Storytelling Festival, and teaches storytelling to everyone from homemakers to colonels who might want to become storytellers themselves, or apply storytelling techniques for better communication in work or family settings.
“Singaporeans often tell me, ‘I’m not expressive.’ But when they practice with partners, you see the most wonderful range of expressions. My real passion is getting people to realise we are all storytellers — our brains are hardwired for story. And when people realise they can use that power of storytelling, it’s amazing to see.”
JEONG AE-REE - Classical Voice Pioneer
Then she first accompanied her husband to Singapore in 1997, Korean-born classical singer Jeong Ae-Ree wasn’t sure if she’d be able to get work. “There weren’t many opportunities for classical singers then. I knew nobody. It didn’t help that I only spoke Korean and German,” she recalls. “But I slowly learnt English, and kept contacting people, saying, ‘Just let me audition and see whether I can do something for you.’ ”
She could. With a voice that’s been said to weave “a seamless web of beauty”, Jeong scored solos at various concerts and recitals, leading to rave reviews and, unexpectedly, students. “After almost every concert, people would wait for me and ask me to teach them. Conductors, pop singers, actors… I’ve taught them all.”
Not content with grooming talent, Jeong decided to found the opera company, New Opera Singapore. “I was doing fine as a singer, but remembered what it was like to not have platforms to perform. Many of my students were doing well, winning competitions overseas, but singing is a performing art and they need performances to keep growing. I thought, why not create some?”
New Opera’s Singapore shows do more than show off their students: they’re changing the face of opera here. Instead of musty textbook pieces presented in a traditional way, the company has staged modern comic operas as well as edgy dark ones, like The Turn of the Screw, tinged with elements of psychosis.
“For a long time, Singapore has only seen the same old way of presenting opera, when there are some crazy ideas out there,” says the brand-new citizen. “Western opera didn’t originate here and so the scene is very young, but if we dare to try, develop it our own way, we will make it our own.”
GINO FLORDELIZA BABAGAY - Dancer & Choreographer
He was a crowd favourite and ended up among the Top 3 finalists for both editions of The Dance Floor, has performed in countless Singaporean stage productions like Dim Sum Dollies and Army Daze the Musical, and was a featured performer in last year’s National Day Parade (NDP). Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Gino Babagay isn’t natively Singaporean.
“My dad worked here for 10 years before he finally managed to bring the whole family over — I was just 14 then. When he passed away a few years later, my mom asked if we should go back to the Philippines. But we all decided to stay.”
Babagay left school to provide for his family the best way he knew how — dance. He already knew Filipino cultural dance: he co-founded the Filipino Dance Club here, and has appeared on TV to teach the traditional Tinikling dance form.
But his passion and eagerness to learn meant he also had more to offer. He learnt Malay dance, picked up Chinese dance and Bharatanatyam vocabularies, and constantly honed his jazz and hip-hop skills. He’s even become a skilled poi performer, leading to his fiery performance at the NDP. “I’ve wanted to be part of the parade since I saw it on TV as a new arrival. It was so surreal to finally do it. I felt really proud, really Singaporean.”
Not only a performer, Babagay also gives classes and choreographs shows like W!ld Rice’s hit pantomime The Emperor’s New Clothes and even The Sam Willows Take Heart Tour. “I love dance for the sheer enjoyment of it. But it’s also so meaningful to me when I can help spark an interest in others to dance.”
ERIC VALLES - Poet
Even after 17 years and a permanent residency, a hint of Tagalog in his accent still marks Eric Valles as ‘non-native’, and he doesn’t have a problem with that. “I’ve always been sort of displaced. I was born in the Philippines but Chinese ethnically, so that marked me as different. In Taiwan, where I wrote for an English-language daily, I look Chinese, but don’t really speak Mandarin. Singapore, though, has always been an open port where non-locals can contribute to culture,” he says.
Valles is certainly a major contributor to Singapore culture, as a teacher of English language and literature to bright young things at the National University of Singapore High School, as well as a respected writer and poet. He was the first permanent resident to be published by Ethos Books, and his work — featured in various international publications — includes pieces inspired by Singapore.
Valles’ multilingual background has given him an edge: Tagalog, Mandarin and English all feature comfortably in his writing. “Our world is becoming more diverse ethnically and linguistically, and when characters or personas that I’m writing about speak in different tongues, that comes out in the poetry.”
He certainly interacts easily with speakers of various tongues as director of the National Poetry Festival, which celebrates poetry in the four official languages of Singapore — even though none of these languages is his native one. “It’s amazing the energy and power that poetry in languages like Tamil and Malay have, but not many Singaporeans are familiar with them. There’s so much that needs to be done in poetry and literature that no one person will be fully equipped. We must rely on everybody’s different skills.”