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District 14: Rupa Workshop

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

| Documentation by Koh Maan Lin |

5 September 2020, 11am - 1:30pm

Geylang Serai

This workshop centred around Rupa, or visual. The youth malay dancers would read the letters written by the elderly from the previous workshop (Khabar), and take photographs based on the emotions they felt. This underlines the theme of the continuity of memories surrounding Geylang Serai. The workshop was conducted by Ismail Jemaah, a member of P7:1SMA, and Noor Iskandar, a visual arts teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and the photojournalist for the project.

It was raining heavily at Geylang Serai that day - unfortunate, but Iskandar and Ismail told me over breakfast that it was appropriate because 7kalibah means 7 floods, a hark back to how the kampungs in Geylang always flooded when it rained. Iskandar also said that the rain would give us literal reflections, which could be used to symbolise the reflections of the past.

Iskandar also mentioned that even though we were supposed to have 7 letters written by the elderly form last week, we only managed to get 6. Still, they created a 7th letter to stay true to the title of the project, and it was a piece of paper stained with teh (tea) and oil. They mentioned how memories could survive outside of text and words, and that the grime of Geylang Serai was also part of its history. It made me think of how we tend to romanticise history because we attach nostalgia to it, and forget about the “ugly” parts of our history even though it is just as essential in our understanding of the world today.

Afterwards, we met the youth dancers from Azpirasi and Atrika and they were briefed on today’s agenda. Iskandar talked about how Geylang was the original kampung melayu, and how there was a forceful evacuation of the area due to the rapid urbanisation of Singapore. Because of this, he wanted everyone to think about where we were going, and what we were leaving behind.

The first activity was to explore how emotions could turn into motion and back to emotion, and a short demonstration was conducted to give the dancers a clearer idea of how to engage in the activity. Then, the letters were given out to the 6 dancers. First, they read it silently, and then out loud. They then spread out around the area and found their own spaces to translate the letter into movement. I was expecting them to take some time to start expressing these emotions, so I was surprised when they started dancing with no hesitation. Most of the dancers used slow, melancholic movements filled with longing, and each gesture was careful and executed with conscious effort and consideration.

Once this activity was over, we set off to explore Geylang on our own for an hour. During this time, each dancer would have to come up with 7 photographs which embodied the emotions they felt in the earlier part of the workshop. Personally, I felt like a tourist in my own country when I was walking through Geylang. Throughout my childhood and upbringing, I have been constantly steered away from old shopping malls like Joo Chiat Complex and have found a home in sleek and modern buildings. It was so new to me to see bits of history and culture tucked away into staircases and alleyways and puddles of rain - the Chinese-run textile shops, the makciks shopping leisurely and greeting store owners like old friends, and on and on. I found myself longing for it, which was a strange feeling, because how can you miss something you never had? Now, in the period of COVID-19, these old strongholds of history are emptier than before, but it was so easy to imagine what it had looked like at the height of its glory. Looking at Joo Chiat Complex and Wisma Geylang Serai, I felt a deep sense of community that had never been imbued in me. In these buildings, spaces were carved out and created for people to gather and interact, now they were devoid of people. It was wonderful and sad, old and new.

At around 12.45pm, we all gathered back at Wisma Geylang Serai for a quick debrief. Iskandar asked each dancer to talk about the challenges they faced during the workshop. One of the dancers mentioned how they took the exercise literally at first, but realised that would not achieve the effect she was going for. Another one said that she started out with very specific ideas of what she wanted to photograph like flowers, or people, but she slowly let go of those as the workshop progressed and took more abstract photos that played with shadow and light.

Next, Iskandar asked each of them to read a line from their letters that stuck with them, and share what about it was so striking. The letter that struck me the most was the one that Liyana had chosen - the man who wrote it addressed Geylang like a lover, and used very romantic words to “talk” to Geylang. It was interesting to see how places can become people, and how they age and hold memories like people. It makes me wonder what Geylang has seen over the years.

At the end, Ismail wrapped up by saying that the sense of community was extremely important when it came to the continuity of memories, since the involvement of the elderly and the youths in this project was precisely about a community that has been shaped by Geylang.


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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