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I Found What I Was Looking For, But I Gained So Much More

On 25 August 2016, I witnessed the premiere of my first documentary, THE CONSERVATION CONVERSATION. It was a childhood dream come true; the culmination of an 11-month-long roller coaster ride that left me enlightened by the prospects of being a documentary storyteller.

But as I sat amongst the 100-strong crowd at the Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium while my own documentary played for them, self-doubt started to creep in. If this was my best work, there was no way that I could do this for a living.

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The remainder of 2016 was spent recuperating and reflecting on what would be my next step. Should I continue to pursue documentary storytelling as a life-long career? Or should I simply celebrate what I had achieved for what it was worth and close this chapter of my life? I had no interest in being a financially struggling filmmaker. In this forked road, my decision rested on my interpretation of whether THE CONSERVATION CONVERSATION was my best. I certainly gave it my all, and yet, deep down, I was adamant that I would not be satisfied if I just called it a day at this juncture.

As the calendar reset for a new year, I greeted it with the determination to produce another documentary. This time, rather than with a crew, I would do it myself. I would do my best for it—and in that process, answer the question—have I got what it takes to be a great documentary storyteller?

Life seemed to leave breadcrumbs for me almost immediately. A quick search on how to tell stories led me to a Khan Academy online workshop that peeled back the process of Pixar’s storytelling. What a way to start! I never completed the course, but its first episode was more than enough. It told the story of how Monsters, Inc. was crafted from one artist’s ongoing new experience with fatherhood and how that experience translated from real life to the screen. A small but crucial piece of my new journey was now in place—I would find a true story to tell, and it would be one that I could rely on my life experiences to do so.

A few weeks later, inspiration struck. I had signed up for a negotiation workshop run by the residential college that I stayed in during my time in NUS. The first order of business was paying a visit to the soon-to-be defunct Sungei Road Thieves Market to bargain for something and subsequently tell that story to the rest of the group.

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Something then clicked in my head. This could be it! For Sungei Road was a childhood playground of mine. Being a student of Stamford Primary School—which was adjacent to the Thieves Market—quite a number of my first toys came from that place. I could also vaguely remember what it was like to be a kid in such a bustling area that was a motley crew of characters and curiosities.

But if I was to produce a documentary about Sungei Road, I had to reconnect and educate myself about the place. So, prior to visiting, I took a deep dive into the increasingly heated discussion surrounding it’s impending closure. It was almost immediately apparent that there was a gap in this public dialogue. From news articles to YouTube videos, there were many snippets of the place, but most were ladled with heavy doses of political messaging or clear bias. It felt like the identity of this unique heritage was about to be buried under the torrent of public proclamations, thus risking the total erosion of its memory to time.

In this, I saw an opportunity, a purpose to produce this documentary beyond my own personal journey of self-assurance. I saw an opportunity to preserve this place in the audio visual medium before it was too late, so that future generations would have the opportunity to return back to 2017 and have an immersive glimpse of this unique spot in Singapore’s landscape before it was cleaned off Singapore’s carefully scalped facade.

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Acknowledging the new challenges of producing a documentary alone, I first had to tackle the art of the interview. I sought out my professors at Tembusu College, each of whom had a colourful history to tell. Before I stepped into the humid heat of the Thieves Market, I practiced in the air-conditioned rooms of the college.

The generous access of my professors’ stories allowed me to not only brush up on the technical skills of operating camera equipment but also to use the soft skills I gained from the negotiation workshop that sparked this direction of my journey. For the art of negotiation requires one to pay attention and respect to the subject matter and context before responding. Do it well and you will gather the right questions to elicit authentic emotions from your subject into the camera. This realisation was no doubt one of the most important milestones in my life, for it has enabled me to grow both as a storyteller and as a human being.

After a few weeks of practice, I was ready, and so I went down to the market camera in hand on 26 May 2017. I was initially not welcomed. Months of media coverage had left a bad taste amongst the community. They shunned those who came with cameras, desperate to capture footage and soundbites for their own means, with little chance that it would lead any sales for the hawkers, much less the chance that the impending closure be prevented.

Realising this mistake, I went back a few more times, this time as myself and without a camera. It took a few rounds, but then rain came, and I met Ah Ming as I sought shelter under his canvas with invitation from his wife. Two hours and an enlightening conversation later, the rain stopped, and Ah Ming became my first interviewee. Mingling with him made me wiser on how to approach other hawkers.

Usually, it would take more time for such relationships to be warmed up, but the market was about to be closed in two months time, and time was running out. So, I sought the help of friends from the previous generations for contacts. My future father-in-law was a frequent patron of the market, particularly of one man – Jack. Both Jack and his godfather took a liking to me and it was Jack’s godfather than gave me the grand tour, telling me stories of the corners, the dos and don’ts, the what was and what is.

Soon, my frequent visits prompted the interest of a regular patron, Francis. His cheerful personality and deep soothing voice were a contrast from the harshness of the environment. And as a patron for over four decades – he knew a thing or two. This was also why Francis was the first voice that you will hear in the documentary, for anyone would be fortunate to have him as a tour guide on their first visit to the market before losing themselves in what the place had to offer.

All of these encounters certainly required luck. The same can be said about how I met Brandon and Helen and convinced them to be in the documentary. Now with a cast that spanned generations, I knew that there is something special brewing.

Halfway through working on the documentary, it became clear to me that I needed to rope in people to accomplish what I had set out to do with this work. My personal journey should not get in the way of making this documentary the best it could be. With expert help from Cheng Lijie (Sound Designer), Eugene Seah (Editor and Colourist), and Marilyn (Graphics Designer), I now found myself in the privileged position of learning from people who have so much dedication to their craft. Their influence made me a better documentary storyteller.

And there was more. Part of the allure of making a documentary is the freedom to embark on a journey where serendipity enriches one’s life and perspective. I feel like Indiana Jones, uncovering details to a larger picture, stories that few get to hear, access to places earned with earnest. Through this already rewarding process, I learned of the fantastic people at the National Archives of Singapore, where I spent days going through various microfilms to further understand the history of the Sungei Road Thieves Market. This inspired the opening of the film, where actual newspaper clippings were used as a tunnel through time for the audience to travel to 2017.

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I also learned that my grandfather used to work as a hawker at Sungei Road Thieves Market selling second-hand furniture. And most importantly, I learned that I had barely scratched the surface of the place. As I had started this in 2017, it was already too late. So many opportunities missed before I even knew about them. While I knew that the documentary could not even begin to encapsulate the entirety of this unique heritage, I strived to do my best to make a fitting epilogue of it.

A year later in 2018, during the anniversary of the closure of the Sungei Road Thieves Market, a few artists and myself came together to commemorate it with the works we made in response to its demise. With each screening, I received messages of appreciation and affirmation that what I had made did succeeded in preserving the character of the place. One person even told me: while the market itself is physically gone, one can still feel it from the documentary.

I had found what I was looking for.

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Since the completion of TRESPASS: STORIES FROM SINGAPORE’S THIEVES MARKET, I have gone on to produce four more short documentaries, the quality of which has soared thanks to the solid foundation built through the experience that was this journey.

There is plenty more in store as I work towards making my first feature length documentary—this time with a proper budget and crew. But just to tie up this story neatly, it would be another year, on 30 August 2019—3 years after my first documentary premiered—that I would hear with elation as the following words were spoken on stage at the National Youth Film Awards:

“The winner for the Open Youth Category: Best Documentary goes to Trespass: Stories From Singapore’s Thieves Market.

The winning film captures a time that is lost, harkening back to a unique heritage that has succumbed to progress. For a country like Singapore where the notion of identity can often be illusive, this is an important work. Heritage is a living thing, passed on through stories and this documentary movingly tells the human stories that defined a landmark that was sadly fated for oblivion.”

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On 10 July 2017, the Sungei Road Thieves Market closed for the second and final time. While it has been replaced by a patch of grass barricaded by metal sheets, it lives on, in part, through my documentary.

OKJ