One Small Voice: Dr Wee Hong Ling

Published on 31 August 2015

A wholly citizen-initiated Singapore arts festival in New York? Producing artistic director Dr Wee Hong Ling shares more.

When 9/11 happened, I was just 3km from the World Trade Center. That very morning, the first phone call I received was from the Singapore Mission to the United Nations in New York. They called all 1,000 Singaporeans in the tri-state area to make sure everyone was safe. I don’t remember the contents of that call; all I remember feeling was, these are my people, and they’re looking out for me. That’s why my identity is so closely tied to Singapore.

So in June 2014, I started thinking, ‘What can we do to celebrate SG50?’ The irony is that I’ve lived away from Singapore for 23 years and yet such a big part of me, my being and who I am, is Singaporean. The idea of organising a Singapore arts festival in New York was insane because what experience do I have organising an arts festival? None! But the idea grew and grew. When I was back in Singapore briefly last July, I shared the idea with friends and many said, “That’s great! If you do this, I will do this!” That fuelled me and Something to Write Home About (STWHA) was born.

The festival will showcase the best of Singapore’s arts and culture, featuring over 40 Singaporean artists from a range of disciplines, including visual arts, theatre, music, dance, film, literary arts and culinary arts. Among them: New York-based writer Amanda Lee Koe, film-maker Kirsten Tan, poet Koh Jee Leong and Vermont-based painter Jimmy Ong.

We’re all Singaporeans, but living overseas gives you a different perspective. So why not pull together the work we do so well and showcase it, and that would be a window into Singapore life. The theme of the festival is ‘home/Singapore’. It’s what we want to say to our Motherland. Our works are about our longing for home. And nostalgia is a powerful thing, it makes you think ‘the best of’.

As a purely citizen-initiated festival, STWHA comes with a huge responsibility. When I was selecting creatives to be part of this festival, I started by saying no amateurs, no hobbyists, no students. It has to do Singapore justice. As an over-achieving Singaporean, I want this to be the best it can be!

But being grassroots also meant getting funding was tough. Thankfully, after applying everywhere, we managed to get some funding from the Singapore Tourism Board, SG50 Fund, Singapore International Foundation, National Arts Council and in-kind contributions from Singapore Airlines and private corporations.

To be able to share a slice of our life, our culture, our country with people is a gift. As they say, you can take the girl out of Singapore, but you can’t take the Singapore out of the girl. I feel I’m very lucky to be Singaporean. It’s time to give back.

The bigger purpose of this is that other Overseas Singaporeans may hear about it, and wherever they may be, organise themselves around their interests — maybe food in London or fashion in Paris? To fly the Singapore flag around the world, to me, that’s the point of this.

Dr Wee Hong Ling, a scientist-turned-artist, holds a doctoral degree in Geography and was a former research fellow with NASA before becoming a full-time ceramicist in 2005. Among her accolades: First Prize at Ceramics Biennial 2006 (USA). Her works are in the permanent collections of the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (Japan) and will feature in the National Gallery Singapore when it opens this November. Something to Write Home About: Singapore Arts Festival in New York happens 12-22 September. For details, visit www.SomethingToWriteHomeAbout.NYC.

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