Arts Preview Singapore Theatre

Preview: First Storeys by Sean Cham (The Future of Our Pasts Festival)


Sean Cham’s 2019 is fast shaping up to be one of his busiest ones yet – hot on the heels of his photo exhibition This Is Where as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019, the young artist returns this March to present an ambitious new work as part of Yale-NUS’ The Future of Our Pasts Festival.

Titled First Storeys, punning on the homonym of ‘stories’ and ‘storeys’, the speculative theatrical installation combines artefacts, artwork, and performance as it examines Singapore’s urban issues in a whimsical and theatrical fashion. Inspired by true events, Cham began his research process in the last quarter of 2017, conducting oral history interviews with residents, going through archives, and visiting antique shops, all the while asking himself about our supposed “kampung to metropolis” narrative, especially with the large scale resettlement Singapore experienced from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Sean Cham. Photo Credit: Joseph Nair

On the origin of the project, Sean says: “First Storeys can be seen as a complement to Yesteryears. The relocation of my grandparents due to the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) is the common starting point for both works. Where Yesteryears look at the obsolescence of buildings, and the memories and stories that are left behind once a building is demolished, First Storeys is a historical investigation of the housing history and narrative in Singapore. The work traces the predecessor of relocation — resettlement — the large-scale rehousing of Singaporeans into public housing to clear off kampungs, shophouses, plantations and cemeteries for redevelopment.”

While resettlement is well-documented, Cham realised that there were still gaps in the literature. Says Cham: “While people often talk about what happened before, and compared it to what happened after, little is known of what happened in between. What were the things that were discarded, how did people move, how did the process of resettlement affect different residents?” It is these gaps that led Cham to adopt a speculative approach to First Storeys, backed up by archives and personal anecdotes.

No photo description available.

Attempting to create conversation surrounding issues of relocation and resettlement, First Storeys is set to be a participatory experience will have audiences step into the former Bukit Ho Swee Community Centre and site of the infamous Bukit Ho Swee fire to join a resettlement exercise to rehouse residents, as part of plans by the fictitious ‘Singapore Housing Improvement Trust’. Through an interactive performance by Darren Guo, Hasyimah Hassan, Hemang Yadav, Isaac Tan and Regina Lim, audiences will get a chance to meet Resettlement Officers to discuss compensation benefits, encounter two ladies forced to live with one another, and witness an unlikely friendship between a resident and an officer.

Says Sean: “First Storeys didn’t begin with the site in mind, but rather the stories that have been collected through archival research and oral history interviews. From the early conceptualisation of the work, there were a lot of visual material that had to be showcased — rental receipts, old magazines, maps, artefacts — and at the same time, many stories that had to be told. In merging both the visual and aural, First Storeys started taking the shape of a theatrical installation. With the idea of a theatrical installation in mind, we began searching for a suitable place to house this piece. After much trawling through real estate listings, and conventional spaces, the site at 300 Jalan Bukit Ho Swee shone through. I wouldn’t frame First Storeys as site-specific per se, but the site added another dimension to the work. The building used to be the former Bukit Ho Swee Community Centre, built on the site of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, and surrounded by the flats built in the 1960s, the history of Bukit Ho Swee adds to the piece and reflects the emergence of public housing discourse after the 1961 fire.”

Photo by Sean Cham

Besides the performance, the installation will also feature artworks both found and repurposed, as well as artefacts gathered by Cham, with the exhibition forming part of the fictitious housing development office Cham created, cheekily referencing the actual Housing and Development Board. Says Cham on the intended impact he wants First Storeys to have: “First Storeys touches on a few key issues: homeownership, single women, and race, amongst others. These issues are not only unique to the past, but also a recurrent topic today. I hope to bring nuance to the housing history that we have come to know, that there is a full 40 years in between the ‘sleeping village’ and ‘bustling metropolis’ we are today. These 40 years have been sidelined in our history textbooks, and we have dismissed this period as a smooth transition for all. First Storeys is for all Singaporeans, of whom more than 80% are living in HDB flats, but does this blanket history really apply to all of us?”

Join Sean Cham and the rest of the residents as they shine a spotlight on our hidden past and unearths the stories etched in our homes’ very walls, as First Storeys makes its premiere this March.

First Storeys: A Theatrical Installation runs from 1st to 10th March 2019 at 300 Jalan Bukit Ho Swee, Former Bukit Ho Swee Community Centre, and will be performed in English, Malay, Mandarin, and Hokkien, with no surtitles, as part of Yale-NUS College’s The Future of Our Pasts Festival. Tickets available from Peatix

For more information about The Future of Our Pasts Festival, visit their website here

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