Civic Life: The stars of Tiong Bahru

It’s a wrap! After months of dialogue and consultation, and three days of intense filming, production for Civic Life: Tiong Bahru has finally concluded. The short film marks the first time that acclaimed London-based filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor are bringing their Civic Life series outside the United Kingdom.

The award-winning series examines space in relation to community, with each project revolving around a chosen civic space. In a previous interview with The Online Citizen, Lawlor revealed that they chose Tiong Bahru Market specifically because they “fell in love with it as a location in which to film” the first time they visited it. The market which was completed in 2006 includes a wet market, a hawker centre as well as an open-air carpark, all of which are featured in the film.

The filmmakers made several trips to the estate over the past few months to speak to its residents and users, collecting the material which serves to inform the eventual story, and several of those they spoke to were eventually selected to star in the film itself. The filming which took place from 25 to 27 June saw a tremendous response from the local community, with over 150 volunteers taking part.

Shot on gorgeous 35mm CinemaScope, the narrative short features three parallel storylines filmed in the lyrical, meditative style characteristic of the duo’s past works. The script was only finalised days before the actual shoot as the couple wanted to keep things open and spontaneous.

Leo Mak, 24, is one of the principal actors of the film. The young hawker who is married and has been helping at his parents’ drinks stall at Tiong Bahru Market, plays the lead role for one of the three stories. In fact, the character he plays, a young man set to inherit his father’s drinks stall, appears to be largely based on the actor’s true life.

But in an interview held during the Sunday shoot, Leo clarified that while there are similarities in terms of their backgrounds, his personality and attitude towards the hawker trade is entirely different from that of the character he plays. He explained that unlike his character who is reluctant to take over his father’s business, he is happy about his current life and hopes to continue working in the trade. Candidly remarking that his best friends are the elderly residents of Tiong Bahru, Leo expressed that he likes Tiong Bahru because of the people and is proud to be a hawker, seeing the trade as an important but often understated part of Singapore culture.

The other star of the film is 86-year-old Mdm Lim. An active member of a sewing group at the local community centre, the Teochew-speaking mother of three sons was chosen by the filmmakers after a series of interviews. Mdm Lim plays an elderly grandmother who is reluctant to leave the Tiong Bahru estate to move in with her son after having lived there for over forty years.

The actress’ second son, who wishes to be known only as Mr Goh, was present at the Sunday film shoot. He highlighted that the sentiments conveyed by the character is common among people of the older generation. “They don’t want to be uprooted as they have developed feelings for the place,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of Mdm Lim, he expressed that his mother, who did not have any prior experience in filming has found the experience “interesting”. He also described the octogenarian, who has been a housewife for most of her life, as “independent”. Mdm Lim currently lives alone in a three-room flat at Tiong Bahru and spends most of her time with her friends from the community centre.

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Veronica Patricia Rio plays the lead character of the last story – a young girl who finds difficulty adjusting when she is made to live with her new foster family. Veronica, who lives with her parents and bravely admits to being a former juvenile delinquent, was recommended by her social worker to try out for the role.

She revealed that she was initially shocked to hear that she had landed the role and has found the entire experience to be quite “surreal”. Nevertheless, she has enjoyed the process and is keen on trying out more roles in the future.

Civic Life: Tiong Bahru is scheduled to be screened every Tuesday in the month of October 2010 at the National Museum of Singapore, and a short-film competition together with a creative writing programme is expected to be launched very soon in conjunction with the project.


By Ho Rui An

Photos by Samantha Tio, courtesy of Civic Life: Tiong Bahru

Civic Life: Tiong Bahru, is a collaboration between the National Museum of Singapore and the British Council, with the support of the Singapore International Foundation and the A.UDE Promotion Programme of the URA. Visit the official website at http://www.civiclife.sg to find out how you can contribute to the project and take part in the upcoming events!