'Civic Life: Tiong Bahru': The real side of Singapore's oldest housing estate

'Civic Life: Tiong Bahru': The real side of Singapore's oldest housing estate

Filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy turn their attention to Tiong Bahru's marketplace for their latest "Civic Life" project
Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
"Civic Life: Tiong Bahru": Can filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy make sense of Singapore's oldest housing estate?

In these cosmopolitan times, the sweaty Irishman tucking into a plate of vegetarian pad Thai at Tiong Bahru Market may not merit much of a second glance from the neighborhood's uncles and aunties. But Joe Lawlor is no ordinary ang moh in search of good food.

Names of people and places like MP Koo Tsai Kee and Bukit Ho Swee trip off his tongue naturally. Lawlor is a filmmaker who has spent over 70 days traveling between London and Singapore the past two years, preparing to film the first ever 35mm film dedicated to historic 1930’s Tiong Bahru district.

From across the pond

Lawlor and his wife and partner, Christine Molloy, are early pioneers of what they call “socially engaged filmmaking,” and started their "Civic Life" series in 2003, in and around the United Kingdom. "Civic Life: Tiong Bahru" is their first project outside the United Kingdom, which began with an invitation from the British Council and National Museum in Singapore.

“There is something about film, that is a great way to transmit one world to another,” says Lawlor.

“Christine and I started out working with community groups in Dublin, and we were always interested in finding out what interests people. Film was a relatively new way of working with the communities and revealing their civic pride.”

Strapped by tight budgets, and often not even paying themselves, the duo won the Best British Short Film award in 2004 and have since made nine films in the "Civic Life" series.


Courtesy Samantha Tio and Alecia NeoDressed up in Singapore's national colors, volunteer actors for "Civic Life: Tiong Bahru."

Laying claim on Tiong Bahru

In "Tiong Bahru," the filmmakers found their ideal match.

“It was kind of obvious that it was a really special place,” laughs Lawlor, while recounting their search. “We actually looked at places like Bedok, and all around, for civic spaces, but somehow Tiong Bahru was special." 

"It was the moment when we were standing on the top deck car park of the market, looking at the new condos in one direction and surrounded by pre-war shop houses, that we were struck by the combination of contemporary and older history of Singapore,” says Lawlor.

It also seemed that everyone they met had passionate memories of Tiong Bahru, the oldest housing estate in Singapore. Narrowing the field further, they decided to center the action on the marketplace entirely.

 Tiong Bahru'Lawlor coaxes the local neighborhood kids to take their places.

Bringing 'Civic Life: Tiong Bahru' to life

With the location chosen, the rest of the preparations went smoothly. Joe even found himself tagging along for a Member of Parliament’s Meet The People session, when MP of Tiong Bahru Koo Tsai Kee met with the public.

“The ideas were practically given to us,” says Lawlor. “The hard part was distilling everything we wanted to say. We definitely felt like we could have made a bigger film.”

The other consideration was not to make a tourist board film.

“It was such a privilege to be shown the real side of Tiong Bahru," says Lawlor, "to see people’s problems to do with money, housing and so on. To not show the serious issues would have been disingenuous, silly even."

According to Lawlor, he credits his creative freedom to the support given by the National Museum’s director, Lee Chor Lin.

“She had a very clear vision of wanting to present new ways to look at things. We found that once all the organisations involved had time to digest the idea, they were very supportive of the story we wanted to tell.”

Crossing the hurdles

Trying to capture the spirit of a community means that he and Molloy had to start by looking in from the outside. Filming in Singapore was no different from the other places they'd been. Surprisingly, it was also easier.

“Part of the deal is that you are in a privileged position as an outsider," says Lawlor. "People will reveal certain things a bit more freely, while they may be more cautious towards someone who is local; we gave them the decision on how they wished to portray themselves on film.”

 Tiong Bahru'"Civic Life: Tiong Bahru": A real look at Singapore life?

A total of 150 volunteer actors were easily rounded up for the three days of filming in June 2010 for the narrative that comprised three intertwined fictional stories -- an aging grandmother, a rebellious teen, and the entrepreneurial boss of a drinks stall.

Celebrating local films

For skeptics who want to see more Singapore films made by Singaporeans, National Museum has been a keen promoter of film under its Cinematheque outreach, and that includes films made locally. Zhang Wenjie, the manager of programs, leads a team of three who run an annual calendar of events focused on film.

“As the National Museum, we are interested in the memory of places, and film is a popular tool to record culture and heritage,” says Zhang.

Cinematheque has proven to be one of the most popular programs at the Museum. In 2008, the team dreamt up "Digital Homelands," inviting Singaporeans and residents to share their memories and stories of places in Singapore that they have a special connection to through a short digital video.

Further back in 2004, locally acclaimed filmmaker Royston Tan was also commissioned by the National Museum for the short, "Old Man By The River," also a movie tied to a social space.

According to Zhang, film will always be important: “History from history books can be dry, but images captured on film is full of possibility, and one day they will become history too.”

Joe hopes "Civic Life: Tiong Bahru" will act as a sort of catalyst for Singaporeans to start thinking about, and also making, their own memories of their civic spaces.

 Tiong Bahru'The mixture of old and new was Tiong Bahru's biggest appeal.

“The healthiest cultures are the ones that exchange ideas,” says Lawlor. "Concurrent with the filming of the movie, we ran 'Where The Heart Is,' a 90-second short film competition. It felt like with a brief that starts with a sense of place, Singaporeans were ready to tell their stories about their own civic spaces.”

The competition received over 130 submissions, and the winner, Isazaly Mohamed Isa, will attend the premiere of "Civic Life: Tiong Bahru" at its U.K. premiere next month.

At the end of the day, says Lawlor, the motivation is simple: “We owe it to the neighborhood to tell their stories and their lives.”

"Civic Life: Tiong Bahru" screens on October 19 and 26, 7:30 p.m. at the Gallery Theatre, Basement, National Museum. Admission is free