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District 14: Ela Workshop

| Documentation by Koh Maan Lin |

19 September 2020, 11am - 2pm

Joo Chiat Complex

We arrived at Joo Chiat Complex and met with Zarina, a visual artist as well as the facilitator for today’s workshop. We were then told to listen to the soundtracks made during the previous week’s Nada workshop, and choose one that struck us the most. Afterwards, Syimah gave each of the participants $20 and told us to browse the textile shops in Joo Chiat Complex and purchase a piece of fabric (about 2 yards long) inspired by the emotions and memories the soundtrack invoked. Syimah also told us to keep in mind our interactions with the shopkeep, and the texture and colour of different fabrics in the shop. Then, we dispersed.

I chose Pak Hathri’s soundtrack, which was a karaoke piece of an old, classic Malay song. The soundtrack was edited in a way that made the originally joyful and energetic performance more melancholic - at different points of time, the backing track was removed, leaving only his raw, unedited voice that belied his age. It immediately reminded me of growing up in my grandparents’ home, and how my grandfather would sing along to old Chinese songs on the radio as he did chores around the house.

While exploring all levels of Joo Chiat Complex, I took note of how empty and lonely the hallways seemed, which is probably rare for a place like this. I couldn’t help but imagine the usual crowds that would be here if the pandemic didn’t exist. Before making my way back to a textile shop that caught my eye on the first floor, I called my mother to ask her about how to express units of measurement in Mandarin. It struck me then how much textile is interwoven into my family relations - every year for birthdays or for Chinese New Year, my mother would buy fabric for my grandmother to make their own clothes. My grandmother also used to be a seamstress who provided for the family, and it was so apt that I would think of her while shopping for a workshop that involved textiles. I ended up choosing a textile that reminded me of the curtains in my grandparents’ home - bright orange florals that looked like fire against a deep blue background. The shopkeeper and I conversed in Chinese and she asked me what I needed the fabric for, and if I was using it to make clothes for myself. I replied that it was for a project, and while she was rounding up my order, she smoothly switched to Malay to talk with a regular customer who had asked her about prices.

Eventually, we all met up at Wisma Geylang Serai to take a car back to Rumah. Once there, Zarina took out two of her works and laid them out on the ground to show us one way we could create meaning with a piece of fabric. One was a response to a feminist project she had taken part in, and she embroidered the names and thoughts of all the women who were part of the same project onto a large, white fabric. The other one was a poem about life and death embroidered onto a burial cloth used in the Malay tradition. Then, we all sat down in a circle to share our thoughts and experiences during the activity at Joo Chiat Complex.

Norlisa chose Majmin’s soundtrack, which made her think of how a woman’s femininity transcends age. This made her ask the shopkeeper to recommend fabrics that would be popular with both the older and younger generation, and she ended up buying two fabrics with different colours and patterns so that both combined would have appeal to different generations. Seha chose Mih’s soundtrack which reminded her of her grandmother, and mentioned how her grandmother was a feisty woman who loved to fight, but could be just as tender. This made her buy two fabrics as well, one was a predominantly black cloth with red and white floral patterns, and the other one was completely gold. They both reflected her grandmother’s taste in fashion. Umairah was inspired by Firdaus’ soundtrack, as it reminded her of Malay funeral music. This made her choose a thick, textured white fabric that she would want to wear to a funeral, as it would make her feel protected and safe. The participants were also told to bring along a piece of clothing or fabric from home that means a lot to them, and possibly it into the textile they bought from Joo Chiat Complex. Umairah brought one of her mother’s old clothes, and ended up plucking a thread from it to sew onto the thick white fabric she bought.

Afterwards, Zarina shared more about the pieces she brought to the studio and about her own thoughts about the history of Geylang Serai. She talked about how the race riots that took place in Geylang Serai weren’t about race at all - they started because of gang fights that got out of control, making it misrepresented in the Singapore narrative. Then, we each split up to different corners of Rumah to work on our textiles to bring out the emotions and memories we discussed. After the workshop, the participants brought their textiles home to work on them some more.


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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