Civic Life: Operation Tiong Bahru

– By Ho Rui An

In March, Work-Life: The Making of Community, organised by the Theatre Training and Research Programme (TTRP), the British Council, and the National Museum of Singapore asked the question of what makes community and if art can bring communities together.

This month, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, Irish filmmakers who have lived in the UK for over 20 years, extend this examination in relation to the notion of place. How do places create communities? What are the personal and communal memories that emerge? How do we document and preserve these memories?

Civic Life: Tiong Bahru is a major community project exploring identity, memory, architecture, a sense of place and civic space. Unfolding over 2010, this will include the shooting of a film in and around Tiong Bahru, online discussions and a film competition which would involve members of the community. The project is a collaboration between the National Museum and the British Council, with support from the Singapore International Foundation and the Arts Council of England.

The film is the latest of Molloy and Lawlor’s Civic Life project series which first started in 2003. Shot on 35mm CinemaScope and involving hundreds of participants, the duo has generated an internationally acclaimed award winning body of work made in negotiation with residents and community groups that foreground the relationships local communities have to the environments in which they live and work.

The community dialogue that unfolds prior to the film is always central to the project. It is through conversation with the residents and users of the chosen location that the ideas and stories for the film are developed and it is these communities of residents and users who ultimately star and feature in the films.

Civic Life: Tiong Bahru marks the first time the project is taken beyond UK and Ireland.

This also marks the first time the project will feature a dedicated web portal ( in which the members of the community can share their memories of one of the oldest and most charming housing estates in Singapore. This can take the form of stories, photos or videos.

Also through the website leading artists, filmmakers, writers, educators and thinkers will be sharing their personal takes on the issues that drive Civic Life (architecture, community, identity and the arts) and you are invited to share your responses to these pieces. A film competition, asking participants to capture the parts of Singapore that are important to them, and a creative writing programme will also be launched during the next six months.

Alternatively, one can also get involved in the film by Molloy and Lawlor, which will be shot in key locations in the estate at the end of June. Find out the different ways you can participate in this large-scale, multi-faceted community project and get the latest updates on the project at its official Facebook group page.

Meanwhile, in an exclusive interview, TOC spoke to Joe Lawlor to find out the progress of the project thus far.

TOC: This is the first time you are taking the Civic Life series beyond UK and Ireland. Why did you choose Singapore and in particular, the estate of Tiong Bahru? What are your personal impressions of the place?

Joe Lawlor: Much of this stems from Dan Prichard at the British Council. Dan was engaged in a programme of works that explored people reflecting creatively on cities and communities. Ben Slater, a script editor on some of our films, who lives in Bedok, recommended our work to Dan as he felt it would chime with Dan’s programme. Dan agreed and invited us to come to Singapore to screen the Civic Life films. We did this and they seem to connect with various audiences. That was the catalyst to begin a series of discussions on the viability of doing one of these Civic Life films here in Singapore.

As for Tiong Bahru itself, this is a slightly more complex question. One of most important questions we have to address is where to place the camera. I’m sure if we asked 100 people from Singapore this question, we would get 100 different responses. We looked around at various places and many were interesting to us. However, there was something about Tiong Bahru that struck us. Yes, it has the HDBs but also it has the architectural foothold into Singapore’s history that spans a longer time frame. People are very passionate about this unique part of Singapore. Yet it too is undergoing continual changes. I think the moment really came when we went up the escalator at the Hawker Centre. We were very struck by this public space and fell in love with it as a location in which to film. There’s a quote from Gaston Bachelard, ‘when contradictions accumulate, things come alive’. Since starting many conversations here, it’s apparent that Tiong Bahru has many interesting contradictions which make it, ideal and completely worth filming especially on 35mm Cinema Scope.

TOC: How would Civic Life: Tiong Bahru be different from the previous projects in the series, in terms of the methods that you employ in facilitating the community dialogue?

Joe: Each Civic Life project demands something different. The films arise out of the very locations and people we meet. However, it’s true you can also see an aesthetic at play. For this project one of the biggest departures will be us dispensing with long takes. We have made something of a reputation for ourselves in the use of the long take but we feel it is not appropriate to this context. Yes, we want to retain a heightened sense of lyricism in the movement of the camera but we have met many incredible people and if we want to give voice to many of them we feel a faster cutting pace will be required to simply get through the material. We don’t mean MTV speeds here but if you have seen our earlier works you would know we usually make quite slow-moving films. We want the same reflective quality but more pace. Yes, there’s a risk involved in this but we’re aiming very much for intimacy and I hope this will come across. Of course, with the more people we meet these days (and given that we are meeting people from a range of economic, cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds), we realise that we literally have not always the language to communicate. So we very much rely on translators to help us. We were initially worried about the fact that we would be outsiders, unable to talk to many people, particularly older people, but actually being outsiders has been very useful and productive. It’s a privileged position to occupy and we want to use it to ensure the very best comes out in the final result.

TOC: How has the reception from the community been thus far? Care to share any memorable experiences?

Joe: It’s true that we have met many wonderful people. Very open and generous. Yes, the ‘meet the people’ evening with Professor Koo Tsai Kee was special – a privileged eye on a dimension of Singapore life we couldn’t otherwise have accessed – and we were grateful for that. Also, the Tiong Bahru CC has been very helpful. One example of their help has been in meeting Linda Koh and talking to her about the great work she is doing in the local area – giving food to the poorer residents or facilitation of a sewing group which tries to honour the memory of people such as the Samsui women. In fact, just the other day we met the only living Samsui woman who lives in Tiong Bahru. She is now 92. Very humbling to meet this lady. We’re not sure how much of this factual research will ultimately end up in the film itself but somehow we’re sure it will all inform the final content of the film. Of course, the film is just one part of a much wider project and we’re sure all of the people and stories we have come across will make an appearance on the website that is being developed for this project.

Visit today to find out how you can be involved in this meaningful community project


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