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District 14: Benda Workshop

| Documentation by Syarifuddin Sahari |

Part 1

29 September 2020, 2pm - 3:30pm

Geylang Serai

As the room in the Sriville Residents’ Committee office was inaccessible, Mysara (the facilitator) and the 2 participants decided to conduct the workshop at a pavilion nearby. Mr Anuar, the representative for the Geylang Serai Merchants, was able to arrange for us to use a room at the nearby Kampung Ubi Community Centre, however everyone preferred to not go through the hassle of shifting over.

Deciding to stay under the cosy shelter for the workshop.

Mysara started the session by refreshing the merchants’ memories of their previous session held the week before along with the artistic direction of District 14 and the key role they play in the process. They were previously requested to bring an item that was significant to them, their stall and/or Geylang. Those items will then each be wrapped up in a ‘kain’ (cloth) that had been developed through a journey and subsequently marked during the previous stages, and the stage following this will involve dancers feeling the wrapped items in the cloth and interpreting / embodying what they feel through Rasa (affects).

She invited them to share the items that they have brought:

- Mangoes, as Mdm Kadariah owns a fruit stall.

- A small assortment of Malay ‘kuih’ brought by Mr Khalid; putri salat, talam ubi & koleh-koleh

(Logistically thinking, it is an interesting proposition to consider the preservation of items that decompose / are perishable as they are wrapped in a cloth)

A show-and-tell of items found in Geylang Market & Food Centre.

Iskandar then elaborated further on the histories and ‘penghijrahan’ (journey) of the ‘kain’ and how they have went from letters images sounds physically materialising through textiles and being marked, perhaps in the hopes to inspire an additional layer of depth into the decision-making of the items to be wrapped in the cloths (something that might have been overlooked during the previous sessions).

To further aid in the scaffolding and flow of thoughts / imagination, the conversation then went on to asking the merchants what personally makes Geylang special to them or if they have any special memories from the area:

- Almost all the food and stalls in Geylang are halal, except for one non-halal butchery.

- One of them grew up at Jalan Alsagoff, however their friends all moved out.

- Being a merchant / store attendant is ‘seronok’ (fun), own-time-own-target, it’s a different story every day, meeting new / different kinds of people including those from the past.

- ‘Suasana’ (vibe, environment) makes them go back to Geylang and its bazaar despite many other bazaars that take place in Singapore, and they can see the identity of Malays in the architecture around Geylang.

- A bit quieter this year due to CoVid

Iskandar then went on to help the merchants to start thinking about the ‘lambang’ (symbols) behind what the items can mean, what was the first thing they sold or they put on display or any crucial items that their stalls cannot function without (such as ‘timbang’ [weighing scale], spatula, ‘loyang’ [tray] for the ‘kuih talam’, the display of the ‘kuih’), as well as the possibility to expand further from / to other objects. They were then able to get first dibs to select their ‘kain’ out of the seven.

Selecting the ‘kain’ that they resonated with the most.

As they were doing so, another merchant, Mdm BB, arrived. Mysara then got her up to speed and explained about where they were / their progress for the workshop and District 14, before joining the rest in choosing their cloths.

They then shared why they chose their ‘kain’:

- Mr Khalid: his reflects the variety of ‘kuih’, and he is also drawn to its tensile strength.

- Mdm Kadariah: the design had motifs of fruits.

- Mdm BB: the drawn pattern (made during a previous workshop) reminded her of something.

Iskandar and Mysara then rounded off the session by sharing that Hasyimah and Haizad will collect another day (Mysara had been texting / discussing with Hasyimah about it) and the merchants will have time to reconsider their objects to contribute in the meantime. This session provided the opportunity to reiterate what the merchants’ involvement were, and the items will be collected another day after they ponder on the conversations. Everyone had a brief exchange that they would prefer to talk more at their individual stalls and see first-hand the layout, displays and wares, as well as to seek inspiration or cues to talk / story tell further.

The end of a fruitful session despite the circumstances.

After the merchants left, Iskandar and Mysara had a brief conversation on how this workshop was more organic, casual and altogether different from other workshops (especially since Iskandar was present for all prior workshops) and that they were more interested in the personal stories and relationships with objects.

The session lead me to wonder: where is the line between guided / facilitated towards an organic outcome and directed towards the artistic vision?

P.S. It rained heavily in the middle of the workshop, to which we commented that it always does whenever we were conducting the workshops during District 14, and the weather is usually hot when there is no workshop being conducted. An interesting point is that this session was held on Tuesday (instead of Saturday for the previous sessions) and it still rained. It relates back to Geylang (District 14) frequently flooding historically (flood = ‘bah’ in Malay).


Part 2

2 October 2020, 9:30am - 11:30am

Geylang Serai

The session started with a short conversation with Mr Anuar and Mr Osman, a well-connected merchant in Geylang (who preferred to not be directly involved as he believes there are other ranges of tangible objects that are more significant from other shops, as he owns a ‘nasi ayam bakar’ stall). We talked about how it was difficult for the merchants to fully immerse in the process due to their schedule, and that arrangements had to be made a lot earlier than it did if we were to have them partake in activities or workshops. In hindsight, there might have been a miscommunication or misalignment somewhere, and it is an important note especially for a work / process that involves many key players.

The lunch crowd was beginning to come in, and Mr Osman shared further about the peak periods, to which he commented that the crowd surrounding us was an average amount. Additionally, the merchants will always be occupied regardless of the time of day or “season”; if they were not attending to customers, they were tending their stalls and its stock. He also expressed gratitude towards the people involved in District 14 as it helps break the merchants out from their daily routines, especially during these times where performances and social gatherings have more limitations; they would previously witness many performances and shows either in Wisma Geylang Serai or at the central area of the market, and they would also congregate for religious events which boosted their morale and sense of community / belonging. District 14 is the first time such programmes took place ever since the Circuit Breaker was implemented about 6 months ago.

Mr Osman then brought us around the Geylang Market & Food Centre to collect the items from the merchants (according to a list we had), and we took the opportunity to have light conversations about their shops and / or experiences:

‘Loyang’ (tray) from Mr Khalid, something crucial to the ‘kuih’-making stall. He shared that he would prefer the cloth to be tied in a way that the tray can be ‘gendong’ (a particular way of carrying).

‘Telekung asli’ (authentic female prayer gown) from Mr Ali, made with cloth that is breathable and comfortable to the skin. He shared about ‘kain jojet’ (embossed cloth) and that he has been selling cloth for 40 years.

‘Kain samarinda’ (cloth from Samarinda) from Mr Salim. It is his most-purchased product, and the most popular from Indonesia.

‘Timbang lama’ (old weighing scale) from Mdm Kadariah. She has been using this kind of scale for a longer and is more familiar with it as compared to the new electronic ones that also show the price, and added that many of the stalls in Geylang also preferred to use the old ones. However, she did comment that the electronic ones are easier to use. She apparently has one to spare and give.

Spices (curry, turmeric, a mix for making ‘soto’ and a packet of cloves, star anise and cinnamon) from Mdm BB.

‘Minyak gosok serai’ (lemongrass massaging oil) from Al- Barakah. It is Hajah Fatimah’s own formula from the 1970s. It is one of their best-selling products and many Malay masseuse / massage parlors use it. It also has other uses apart from massages. There was a heaty and non-heaty variety, though we did not manage to ask what made it heaty.

One more set of items that was handed to us was ‘nangka’ (jackfruit), ‘kelapa parut’ (grated coconut) and ‘santan’ (coconut milk) from a fruit stall / banana leaves stall. We were also given the skin of the jackfruits upon request as it had an interesting texture. The stall attendant shared that the most significant item was the jackfruit, and that it comes from Malaysia. We did not manage to ask further / it did not occur to us to ask further when we were at the stall.

We also stopped by a ‘kedai wangi-wangian’ (shop of fragrances) to request for items or engage in conversation, to which the owner / attendant preferred to not be involved. Mysara shared that she always bought her ‘bunga rampai’ (potpourri) from that stall and that she is the only one who sells the potpourri where the fragrance liquid is red, which is of her own protected formula, and that she is rather fierce.

(Later on, Mysara shared that she bought the ‘bunga rampai’ for her white cloth from the very same stall, so as much as the stall owner did not want to be involved, she is unknowingly / indirectly contributing to District 14 still.)

Going around on a treasure hunt of sorts, while witnessing the

community spirit of the merchants.

A few observations and thoughts from the “collection run”:

- Mr Osman was well acquainted and very familiar with the merchants in the Geylang Market & Food Centre, to the extent that he even knew their temperaments and stories. He was seen greeting and poking fun with some of them as we walked around / passed by the stalls.

o Shows the sense of community amongst the people whose lives revolved around Geylang; some even longer than others, and how they are intertwined.

o We even had a conversation with a banana stall owner who as not part of the list, perhaps because Mr Osman knew that he would be more than happy to share his stories.

§ We asked about some red bananas that he had on display, and he shared that it is believed bananas turned red when someone removes a curse they are afflicted with.

§ He had been selling bananas since before the old Geylang Market (2 iterations ago), and that the bananas used to cost only $0.05, to which we chuckled and said that $0.05 is almost non-existent today.

- Why are some of them okay with gifting their wares or items / tools despite the potential loss of income (especially during these tough times)?

o We had set our minds on purchasing their items as a small gift / contribution to them, however when we asked for the price (to pay), some politely gestured and graciously said, “Hadiah,” (gift), to which we felt we wanted to honour their intentions and not impose / force them to accept our payment.

o Even more so for the ‘loyang’ and ‘timbang lama’, items that they need in order to operate their stalls.

o Perhaps it was altruism, sincerity, kindness, a for-the-people mindset that they believed in.

After which we brought the items back to Rumah to match them to the ‘kain’ and tie / wrap them up into the ‘bungkusan’ (bundles, though we refer to them as dumplings).

Notes / observations and thoughts from the “ceremony”:

- There are multiple possibilities and combinations depending on perspective.

- Iskandar carried out a preliminary matching based on an “initial sensing”.

o Did it affect / influence Mysara’s decision of matching the ‘kain’, even if she agreed to it?

o He went through a few versions / combinations while waiting for Mysara to arrive, which upon his inquiry I agreed with each and every one of them, and stated the f. final decision should be left to Mysara as she was the facilitator / had a closer relationship to the merchants, as well as her practice being closely related to humans’ connections / stories to items and objects.

o How different will it be if Mysara carried out the matching from scratch and without external reference / influence?

- As the ‘kain’ and objects were matched by Iskandar and Mysara as compared to the initial plan of having the merchants carry out the matching and tying of the bundles, to what extent should artistic liberty be allowed in the process of artmaking that involves many other key players?

- Was the tying significantly done or merely to “make a bundle for the work”?

- Logistics of bundling up perishables directly in the cloth:

o Should there be limits as to what can be done?

o Negotiating between artistic decision and logistical considerations.

o Working around the challenge VS Making things easier in the long run

And so the bungkusans are ready for the next stage of District 14.


As much as we will attempt to record the process, this journal does not necessarily reflect the artistic direction or intention of the work. This is our interpretation as we experience it with the artists and collaborators.

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