This year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts invites you to discover home and identity for yourself.
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
Published on 3 August 2015
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
“In 1975, I moved to Singapore from London. Love brought me here. I fell in love with the first Chinese Singaporean man I ever met and he spoke of Singapore as a ‘cosmopolitan tropical island’. And so it was. I fell in love with Singapore and its people and I’ve been here ever since,” says Eugenia Gajardo, a psychotherapist, counsellor and painter from Chile, who is part of the cast of The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers.
Commissioned for the opening of Singapour en France — le Festival at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, in March, The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers features 22 first-time actors, aged 20 to 63, originating from 21 nations — including Romania, Laos, Mexico and New Zealand — who now call Singapore home.
This multi-faceted production, a stunning combination of music, visual arts, live video, fashion and documentary, will be restaged here in September for the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2015, which opens 6 August. A theme that is inevitably explored is the concept of ‘home’, as seen through the eyes of these courageous border-crossers.
“I’ve grown up alongside Singapore, we’ve evolved together and my quasi-Asian family is here: my daughter, my son-in-law and his family, my dear friends. I am home at all levels in Singapore, from the inside out,” declares Gajardo.
“But being a part of The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers helped me better understand what home and identity means for me,” she contemplates. “I came to the grand realisation that I’m more Singaporean than many Singaporeans, and yet I remain fiercely Chilean. Interestingly enough, there is no conflict there but rather, a beautiful and congruent synergy of what constitutes me. Singapore is my home, no doubt, but I am sure that if I go to Chile tomorrow, I will be home too.”
For Phann Sopheaktra, 27, who came to Singapore from Cambodia in 2003, it was education that brought her here. “I arrived on 1 October 2003,” she says. “I remember the exact date because I celebrate the anniversary every year.”
In Cambodia, unless one is born into a rich family, it’s hard to receive a good education. So when she was offered an ASEAN scholarship to Singapore, she jumped at the opportunity. “My parents know that Singapore is a safe country, so they trusted me to come here by myself, at the age of 14.”
Today, Sopheaktra is a credit analyst at an asset management firm and has called Singapore home for the past 12 years. “Singapore is home to me because I spent my formative years here. My best friends are here. They’re like family to me because I’ve always been away from mine. As more people here start to mean something to me over time, Singapore is becoming ‘more home’ to me.
“But I also have my attachment to Cambodia because my family is there,” she admits. “Both countries are home because of the people in them. They are the two places I can go back to where there will be people waiting for my return outside the airport gates.”
These 22 Permanent Residents of Singapore were handpicked after a series of personal interviews by Ong Keng Sen, festival director of SIFA and creator of this commissioned work. “The search for home is very distinct and strong in The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers. Though their backgrounds are varied, they’ll tell you what binds them is that they all have homes in Singapore.
“The fascinating question then is ‘what is home?’ I think it involves a kind of shared care for a space. If you have that civic consciousness, you can be at home even if you don’t have that piece of paper to say you’re a citizen of the country,” reasons Ong, adding that this adds a beautiful angle to SIFA 2015’s theme, ‘POST-Empires’. “It raises questions of citizenship and the need for it. Do we have to be a citizen before we can consider the land a home?”
For Felipe Cervera, 31, moving to Singapore began as an opportunity for change but has become so much more. He was living with his partner, Fezhah, in Mexico when she received an offer to teach at Republic Polytechnic and he got a PhD scholarship at the National University of Singapore. In 2012, they moved here.
“Right now, I can’t imagine my life anywhere else. We bought a tiny cosy HDB flat up north in Marsiling. We spend our evenings having tea and talking about our day. This is home,” he beams, adding that he has been ‘crossing borders’ quite a bit in the last few years — not just physical borders but also personal ones, like getting over the loss of his grandparents.
“I knew I had something to bring to the production. The biggest challenge, though, was getting in tune with the format Keng Sen had in mind,” he reveals. “One would think straightforward storytelling might be the best way to share life experiences. But this show goes beyond that: we share through singing, dancing, images, rituals. The challenge was finding the best format for my stories.
“The day we opened in Paris, Keng Sen said that this show is a ‘slice cut’ to our lives, a moment of realising who we have become. It has helped me adopt a new perspective on some sad moments in my life and be aware of just how rooted my life is in Singapore.”
The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers is on at National Museum of Singapore, Exhibition Gallery 1 & 2, 17-19 September, 6.30pm. Tickets available via Sistic. For more information, visit sifa.sg.
When you’ve lost claim to your land, perhaps the next best thing is to reclaim it through the arts.
“Home was a huge driver in the original development of dirtsong, not only as a physical place but as a spiritual place that shapes a sense of one’s self, identity, community and culture,” says Anna Jacobs, general manager of Black Arm Band, a collective of renowned indigenous singers, musicians, performers and actors from across Australia.
This month, they will be staging in Singapore for the first time, dirtsong, featuring songs performed in 11 Aboriginal languages, backed by an ensemble of the country’s finest musicians, and set against a backdrop of stunning moving images and text, immersing audiences in Australia’s heartlands.
“In many ways, our culture was ripped away from us at gun point, ending in many indigenous tribes being wiped out by a culture scared of the unknown,” explains Fred Leone, director of dirtsong for the Singapore leg. “As a people, we’ve had to adapt to a foreign system and adopt a totally different way of thinking just to survive.”
When the project started as the Black Arm Jam in 2006, it was in response to then-Prime Minister John Howard’s dismissal of ‘a black armband view of history’, which saw him essentially denying the cultural dispossession of the first nations since European arrival.
“The debate then was whether accounts of Australian history accurately represent a balanced view of the past or whether it is ‘a white blindfold view of history’ which only acknowledges the nation from the time of European arrival and discredits the atrocities against the country’s first nations,” Jacobs elaborates. “Many contemporary indigenous artists have been telling stories about this marred history through their music and raising awareness to the broader Australian community.”
Says Ong Keng Sen, festival director of SIFA 2015, “The production dirtsong has a lot of resonance with issues of identity and the search for home. I think right now, in Singapore, I am asking the question, who is the ‘aboriginal’? This claim to the land is also a claim to existence, to be visible, to be recognised and to be as human as the majority. I think this is relevant to Singapore when we think of minorities.”
On what Singapore audiences can expect, Jacobs reveals, “Much of the work is performed in indigenous languages, so a majority of audiences cannot understand the songs from the meaning of the lyrics, but rather, from the universal sense that they elicit — a sense of place, of connection, joy and sorrow. Black Arm Band expresses a familiar story and musically responds to the march of colonialism across the globe.”
Catch dirtsong at the Victoria Theatre, 20-22 August, 8pm. Tickets available via Sistic
Watch real drama unfold as 25 homes are transformed into theatres.
“This idea of home, especially when you strip away the frames and ideology, is really about the residential space,” says SIFA festival director, Ong Keng Sen. “And the living room, as a kind of convening and communal space in the house, is the theatre of the home. I feel the invitation into people’s homes brings us to experience theatre right at the heart of it all.”
In September, SIFA and PassionArts collaborate to present Open Homes, an ambitious project to transform private homes across Singapore into theatres. “We’re matching 25 households with nine artist-mentors to co-create 25 plays about their own Singapore stories,” says Jeffrey Tan, producer of Open Homes. “The homeowners will act and play host. These 30-minute plays touch on memories, relationships, life experiences and joys of community living.”
Theatre practitioner Sharda Harrison shares her experience working with the families. “As an artist-mentor, I got to know the people living in the homes. Together, we sifted through stories of their lives,” she reveals. “I received so much honesty from them, and I can’t wait to present these very intimate pieces to an audience.”
On what we can expect, Harrison discloses, “You will enter each home, each with a unique texture and history: it’s all over the walls, the furniture, the photo albums and the mementos of each household. The stories they share with you are slices of life to take away into your own home and heart.”
“At first, we were a bit apprehensive. What? Open our home and share our private lives with strangers?” admits Mdm Soh Hwee Yan, 69, a retired teacher involved in Open Homes. “But my husband Aziz and I felt we could share about our growing-up years, how we met, why our parents were against our interracial marriage, and what living together as a family of 10 is like.
“To me, home is a place filled with love and laughter, but it’s often imperfect — there is hurt, pain and anger. But there is also healing and forgiveness,” Soh reflects. “It may be messy but always good enough for us as it is our home.”
“If we don’t dare to share our desires, if we feel guarded, it means we’re not at home,” affirms Ong. “As such, home can be a very difficult space where we need to negotiate, and negotiation is often emotional and vulnerable. It’s interesting that home is both safe and challenging, a kind of duality that enables us to be raw.”
Open Homes plays all over Singapore over two weekends, 5-6 September & 12-13 September, at various times. While performances are free, pre-registration is required. Details at tiny.cc/openhomes.