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Home is where the theatre is

Sep 09. 2015
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Singaporeans open their homes to share their personal stories with festival-goers

EVERY TIME I take foreign friends to Pichet Klunchun Dance company’s Chang Theatre in Thung Khru, Thonburi, I always tell them this is where real Bangkokians live – an area not yet accessible by either MRT or BTS.

Having frequented the Singapore Arts Festival for more than a decade, I can still recall when some performances were staged outside the civic district with which visitors are familiar. Thanks to that lack of a central venue, I’ve been off the tourist track, visiting the Bedok reservoir, port of Singapore and the communities where foreign construction workers live.

Last Sunday, thanks to Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), as the new and independent version of the city state’s arts is now known, I had the chance to visit two Singaporean condominium units owned by people I had never met.

Part of a programme called “Open Homes”, which was co-organised by SIFA and the People’s Association’s PassionArts, residents of Northvale Condominium in Chua Chu Kang, not far from the Malaysian border, staged six performances, twice on each day of the weekend.

In “The Right Chemistry”, after a brief session of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and yoga, India-born and Australia-bred businessman Alex Baburamani and piano teacher Chinese Singaporean Caroline Leo, shared the story of how they met – at a dental office where she worked one day a week – and how they overcame their cultural differences.

Visitors, or audience members, were invited to drink lime-flavoured water and browse the couple’s wedding photos as well as magazine articles written about them.

At the same condominium complex, Thomas Oommen and Bindhu Thomas, both immigrants from India, first showed us their two daughters’ collection of memorabilia and their bedroom, where we admired not only the cartoon decoration but also the practical details like the height of electrical switches. Oommen also drew our attention to a great number of stickers posted throughout their home, explaining that the neighbours now referred to the condo as the “sticker home”. Later, the four of them sat in front of TV set in their living room and, while browsing through family photo albums and enjoying Indian dessert gulab jamun and dried banana chips, we learned more about the family’s life, including how their daughters, who are studying Mandarin, were enjoying a very different childhood from theirs.

After each session in their homes, which lasted about half an hour and in which some audience members were neighbours, we gathered in a common room downstairs where conversation continued over more snacks and drinks. I was invited to a durian festival organised by the community that evening but I needed to cut my memorable afternoon short as a 45-minute MRT ride back to the civic district to watch another SIFA performance awaited.

The programme booklet reveals that these residents had co-created these performances with professional theatre-maker mentor Ebelle Chong and much credit goes to her for having kept them straight to the point and ensuring the non-performer hosts and hostesses were comfortable and natural.

Although the casting of non-performers, who are supposedly less artful and more sincere than professional thespians, in a theatre performance has been a trend for many years, I never felt that “Open Homes” aimed to be part of that trend. Instead, it was more about opening up perspectives on a multi-cultural society, giving the audience the chance to learn more about what they think they already know.

Of course, these two middle-class families only represent a fraction of inhabitants in this island state. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting the opportunity to see how my construction worker compatriots live.

The writer’s trip was supported by SIFA. He wishes to thank Tay Tong, Eileen Chua, Noorlinah Mohamed and Rashidah Arshad for all assistance.



- “Open Homes” continues on Saturday and Sunday.

- Visit www.PassionArts.sg to see how art-and-culture projects improve the living conditions of communities in Singapore.

- The Singapore International Festival of Arts runs until September 19. For more details, check www.Sifa.sg.

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