Telling our First Storeys

Artist, photographer, and author of 'Yesteryears' Sean Cham investigates the transition from kampungs, shophouses and informal housing to today's ubiquitous HDB with his project, First Storeys. Through anecdotal stories, he hopes to uncover the nuances during this transition as people first stepped into their new homes. We spoke to Sean about his latest project with The Future of Our Pasts.

Sean recently published 'Yesteryears', a series of 50 in situ self portraits in abandoned and forgotten places around Singapore.

Sean recently published 'Yesteryears', a series of 50 in situ self portraits in abandoned and forgotten places around Singapore.

Tell us about yourself, and your previous experiences as a creator.

I am Sean, a current third year student at Yale-NUS College, majoring in Urban Studies and minoring in Arts and Humanities. I have always been interested in Singapore's history and heritage, and my works revolve around these issues as well. I recently published my book Yesteryears with Math Paper Press, which is a series of 50 in situ self portraits in abandoned and forgotten places around Singapore. These places paint another narrative of the Singapore story and history, through the mundane everyday places that have been left forgotten.

What do you find interesting about Singapore history?

While our history can be easily reduced to a single chronological narrative that can be packaged in a primary school textbook or a tourist brochure, there are different lenses and narratives that can paint a richer and fuller Singapore story.

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First Storeys investigates

the transition from vernacular settlements (kampungs, shophouses, informal housing, etc.) to the ubiquitous HDB, through anecdotal stories.

 

What is your project about? Why are you interested to explore this topic?

First Storeys investigates the transition from vernacular settlements (kampungs, shophouses, informal housing, etc.) to the ubiquitous HDB, through anecdotal stories. My Yesteryears story started with the tearing down of my grandparents' HDB block at Bukit Merah, and I want to dig deeper into the HDB narrative in First Storeys, especially since I have been living in a HDB flat my whole life.
 

What have you discovered so far in your research that people may be surprised about?

While doing up my research, I realised there are so many things I do not know about the HDB even though I have been living in one my whole life. The first estate that the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT, the predecessor of HDB) worked on was the Tiong Bahru Estate in the 1930s. 'Tiong' means to die in Hokkien, while 'Bahru' is new in Malay. The cemeteries in the area were new as compared to the older and established cemeteries in Chinatown then (present Singapore General Hospital). The SIT deemed the area unsanitary, and began clearing out the slums, exhuming the graves, and levelling the ground. Over 2000 squatters in Kampung Tiong Bahru were offered alternative accommodation in SIT flats slated to be built at Alexandra Road. In December 1936, the first block of flats was built along Tiong Poh Road. The rent, however, was too high and could only be afforded by rich merchants and families of the 'clerical class'.

First Storeys will culminate in an immersive theatrical installation, where people can explore and learn about the HDB narrative themselves.

What do you think sets your narrative apart from what is already out there? How would you like the public to relate to your project?

Honestly, I think that the HDB narrative has been well covered and established, a lot of research has been done regarding the social changes of people. What I hope to uncover is the nuances during this transition - how did people react and feel when taking their first step into the new home. While 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB, I think that many people from the younger generation (myself included) have been so used to living in high-rise, that they possibly would not understand the change from vernacular settlements to the new HDB.
 

What can we look forward to from your project come 2019?

I envision the project to culminate in a theatrical installation, where it will be an immersive and performative experience for people to explore and learn more about the HDB narrative and the transition story.
 

Anything else you’d like to share?

I will be opening a call for people to come forth and share their transition stories from vernacular settlements to HDB, or if they know of anyone who has such stories. Do check out First Storeys on Facebook, and feel free to contact me for more information. I look forward to listening to your stories!

 

All images courtesy of Sean Cham