One Small Voice: Tan Siok Siok

Published on 16 March 2015

Beijing-based film-maker Tan Siok Siok shares how ties with home shape her art.

I’ve always had a profound yearning for China. I was an avid student of Chinese history, literature and philosophy and would spend weekends browsing Chinese bookstores.

Even when I was a television journalist based in Singapore, I was producing documentary and lifestyle programmes about China. China has always been a part of my imagination and I wanted to find out what it’d really be like to live and work there.

Coming to Beijing seemed a natural step. As a visual storyteller, I know that we live in an era of growing interest in China and Chinese stories. A story about China has potential global significance, and there is an increasing need for film-makers who can interpret China to those who long to understand more.

Being based in China excites me — both artistically and commercially — as I have always been drawn to places that are complicated and contradictory, and there is really no better place for me to be right now than in China.

As a Singaporean artist based overseas, my connection with home is always there, albeit subconscious and implicit. One of the first things I tell anyone when I first meet them is that I am Singaporean. Although my Mandarin is fluent enough to pass for a Chinese national, I feel that knowing I am Singaporean will help explain my cultural and artistic identity to those who are just getting to know me.

Being Singaporean gives me a distinct world view that influences my art work. Over the past two years, I’ve been taking a series of black-and-white photographs of Beijing with my mobile phone and posting them on social media platforms. I’ve been surprised to learn that the two groups of people who have been the biggest fans of the photos are the expatriates in China and native Beijingers.

The ability to find resonance with those from opposite ends of the spectrum comes from a world view that can reach across the East-West divide. It’s an ability to read between Chinese and Western cultures, and yet be an outsider at the same time. I find it hard to explain why this is so, except it is a perspective I have grown up with, since I am a hybrid of both cultures.

This April, I am one of the featured artists for the Beijing leg of the Singapore: Inside Out global tour, a platform organised by the Singapore Tourism Board to showcase Singapore’s contemporary creative talents in Beijing, London and New York City.

I’ll be sharing how I’ve turned my mobile photography into a participatory art project through crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Since the photographs feature the historic part of Beijing, I hope to offer a perspective on China that even the Chinese will find insightful.

Every traveller knows that all foreign destinations reference what ‘home’ is. ‘Home’ is not a fixed location, it is an emotional and spiritual place that defines us. Often, we need to go far, far away to make sense of what ‘home’ really means. The journey of return will always be poignant and difficult, but it is a journey we will undertake again and again as a means of finding ourselves.

Tan Siok Siok is a film-maker and entrepreneur based in China. She is CEO of internet start-up, Kinetic ONE, China’s leading multi-channel network focused on youth culture, fashion, lifestyle and parenting. She is also an award-winning producer whose work has clinched over a dozen awards and nominations at the Asian Television Awards and the Golden Bell Awards. Twittamentary — her documentary on microblogging tool Twitter — has been screened around the world, including the 2013 World Economic Forum at Dalian, China.

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