Reminiscing about the Kampung Life with Amanda Heng

The Future of Our Pasts interns participate in Amanda Heng's Let’s Chat, a performance art piece presented at the NUS Museum as part of 'Radio Malaya: Abridged Conversations About Art'. Teo Zi Qing tells us more.

Photography by Alyssa Siow and Teo Ziqing

Artist Amanda Heng at Let’s Chat, sitting at a table plucking beansprouts while chatting with a group of visitors.

Having not visited any art exhibitions in Singapore before, never would I have expected that my first experience to one would involve sitting around a table sipping tea and plucking beansprouts, while chatting with the artist herself and other total strangers from all walks of life.

On 23 November, as part of our internship with The Future of Our Pasts, we visited the NUS Museum to view the exhibition Radio Malaya: Abridged Conversations About Art and participate in Amanda Heng’s Let’s Chat. Started in 1996, Let’s Chat was a project that set out to encourage people to “rediscover the simpler joys of life in a kampung”  by participating in an everyday chore that kampung dwellers presumably engaged in collectively - plucking tao geis while chatting.

The exhibition was filled with a tranquil silence at 4pm when we arrived on a weekday afternoon, as people walked around viewing the various paintings, sculptures and text on display. Occasional echoes of chatter and laughter could be heard around the hall as more people joined the table at the corner of the exhibition, creating a livelier atmosphere all around.

When she saw us hanging around the table awkwardly, Amanda Heng warmly greeted us and animatedly gestured towards the table filled with an enormous pile of tao gei and cups of tea, inviting us to join her for an afternoon chat. Our casual conversation revolved around ordinary topics - where we come from, how we heard about the exhibition, her art, school etc, while simultaneously plucking off the roots of tao geis and sipping tea. Conversation at the table flowed naturally, especially as people from diverse backgrounds joined us and shared stories about their own cultures.

A whole pile of cleaned and plucked tao geis from our hour-long conversation with Amanda Heng.

A customary practice in many households, preparing beansprouts (aka tao gei) for meals was a common traditional household chore for many families living in kampungs in the past. Although it was a very mundane task, it fostered social interaction between people as conversations on all kinds of topics would be exchanged. The “kampung spirit” is hence embodied by this openness and willingness to communicate with each other, and the close-knit communities that formed within kampungs. In a way, the simple act of plucking tao geis together is reminiscent of daily life in the kampungs, which have since been replaced by high-rise public housing starting in the 1960s.

On the experience of plucking tao geis, Amanda said,“You can now buy these ready-made from supermarkets, that’s what comes with modern-day convenience. But then of course at the same time, we lose some forms of socialisation and the chance to build relationships through a medium that’s a common and familiar sight to many, which makes them more interested to want to take part in the activity, which is why I chose to use them.”

Hence, by bringing Let’s Chat to more public spaces, Amanda Heng hopes to encourage more audiences to participate and through this activity, experience the communal spirit of open sharing in the kampungs, which most of the younger generation today would have missed out on.

Interns Alyssa (left) and Ziqing (2nd from right) pose for a photo with Amanda Heng (right) .

Even though we were there to see  Amanda Heng’s work, it felt like we were a part of the work itself – interacting with the artist whose passion and perseverance for her work was so admirable. The therapeutic plucking of tao geis provided a pleasant respite from the busy schedules many of us are bogged down with nowadays. It also offered a new perspective on how art can be used to surface overlooked aspects of social history, by recreating a  ‘kampung experience’ and generating conversations around changes wrought by modernisation to the daily lives of ordinary people.

Lastly, another reason why Amanda Heng chose to use tao geis? “It’s cheap,” she quipped.