Chinatown is a place rich in history and cultural locale. Beyond collecting memories, Picturing Chinatown wanted to discover what would happen if we gathered a group of 12 people with a history in Chinatown or people who were passionate about the place. How would they express what Chinatown means to them in their reflections, photos and stories?
How would they grow together if they met fortnightly for six sessions, taking pictures regularly, discussing photos, attending talks on history, urban development, visiting clan associations. Would they be able to help tease out the soul of Chinatown under the tourist façade?
This has been our experiment. In the end we had participants from diverse backgrounds ranging from their teens to their 70’s. Some had rich experiences as photographers and writers others yet others were learning to express what was in them through their more basic writing and photography skills. These are their stories.
The Singapore Heritage Society takes an active interest in how we can maintain a sense of place that is connected to history, so that we can bring greater depth and meaning to local identities. This is particularly challenging in a district like Chinatown, which has changed drastically since its tourist-oriented redevelopment of Chinatown in the late 1990s. Picturing Chinatown is our attempt to find new ways to achieve this objective.
As a process-oriented, collaborative project, Picturing Chinatown aims to go beyond documentation of stories and memories to more action-oriented community projects by utilisng the following three methods: storytelling and sharing, walking and journaling, and photographing. Walking, journaling and photographing equips participants with simple tools to sense, experience, and reflect on Chinatown’s unique social and historical landscape. At the same time, participants’ sharing and telling of stories effect deeply moving experiences and shifting perspectives, while also empowering individuals to become more involved in civic life.
Our method was simple: participants were tasked to frequent Chinatown to take photographs, to walk around the community, and to talk to residents and local businessess. They were also asked to make a walking diary to note their thoughts and observations. Our group of 12 participants and team members, a bilingual group varying in age from 18 to 70’s, met every two weeks for a sharing workshop.
The workshops tone was informal, and followed a similar format: dinner, followed by a discussion topic, and the sharing of photographs and thoughts from intervening weeks. In particular, participants discussed why they chose the photographs they did, and to reflect on the significance of particular scenes and memories to them. The primary aim of the workshops was to create a comfortable listening, discussion and conceptual space, while encouraging involvement from participants.
The team feels it is important to involve a broader community of dialect and mandarin-speaking Chinatown residents and stakeholders. We utilised Chinatown vendors, and engaged Mandarin and dialect-speaking interns and translators to assist. We actively engaged with the Chinatown community. We chose to vary our workshop and dinner venues – we went to two clan associations, visited various eateries, went on a tour of Chinatown, and visited with a 4-generation family living and running businesses in Chinatown for more than 90 years. At the end of six workshops, participants produced a photo essay comprised of several images and an accompanying reflective narrative. The photo essays encapsulate a topic of their choosing, within the parameters of the question, “What Chinatown Means to Me”.
Chua Ai Lin 蔡爱琳
Project Leader 作业领队
I am a historian and president of the Singapore Heritage Society. In Singapore, we often believe there isn’t much history and that rapid economic change has exacerbated this. While this is true to some extent, I think there’s a lot more than meets the eye. We need to keep our senses alert to the continuities with the past and rich culture of everyday life that is around us. Chinatown is a very good example. Through Picturing Chinatown, by looking for stories of the relationship between people today and this very historic space, I hope we can begin to see the living presence of the past in our lives and understand it in a more nuanced way.
Drawing from my masters research in visual anthropology, I designed the project using collaborative photography for place making and community building. I found my experience in this project to be personally enriching. What I found particularly meaningful were our multigenerational conversations which created meaningful connections to each other, our pasts, and to Chinatown. Unexpectedly, these visits to Chinatown and our conversations also untangled memories from my own past, and helped to renew my own understanding of the area. I am currently a PhD researcher in Anthropology from the University of Toronto. I am interested in cultural heritage and land development in Singapore, in particular the stories people tell about Singaporean heritage.
An instructional designer by training, I am a curriculum developer and trainer in an educational consultancy. I am also an avid photographer with a special interest in landscape photography. My extensive portfolio also includes cityscapes, abstracts, black and white and food photography. I am also a weekend potter. My current work on teacups and bowls focuses on elegant simplicity and functionality, in the style of fine Japanese pottery. I have recently developed an interactive iPad app, DragonFire Singapore, which showcases the traditional wood firing, and the last surviving dragon kilns in Singapore.
I run a Kinesiology practice in the heart of Chinatown and I consider myself a longstanding local in the area. I would love to encourage more neighbourhood collaborations and placemaking in line with my current interest in practicing urban permaculture. In a former life, I have worked in television and print journalism.
I am a 62 year old Engineer. I grew up in the greater Chinatown and I have been walking the streets of Chinatown since young. My interest is in cultural heritage. I hope that from the sharing of the experiences of this project, we can get more people to continue the journey. There is still much to be done – sharing and through the process, recording our Chinatown heritage. I am sure, from here, we will spin off to other parts of Singapore and even the world as we trace the diaspora of Chinatown residents.
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