The talented students from School Of The Arts (SOTA) recently produced an e-book, Remembering Rochor, documenting the memories of some of the residents and store owners of Rochor Centre. The students then applied their artistic sensibilities to the conversations and observations they had about the area and the people there. Drawing inspiration from their observations, the students created works of art, poetry and photography, capturing a different side of Rochor Centre altogether. We chat with their teacher, Ms Wynnie Kwok, who gives us an insight into the creative process, difficulties and learning journey of the students.
Stephanie Pee (SP): Hi! How did SOTA come to collaborate with the Singapore Memory Project?
Wynnie Kwok (WK): As part of SOTA’s curriculum, the students participate in a service-learning activity called Service Action in Community (SAC). The overall objective of SAC is for the students to be socially aware and engaged with the community respectfully and meaningfully. The students’ SAC experiences orientate them towards social advocacy, citizenship education as well as academic learning. At the start of the SAC journey, students are introduced to a range of possible projects which they will choose to be invested in for the next two to three months.
Remembering Rochor is one such project offered among others firstly because Rochor Centre is in SOTA’s vicinity, thereby rendering it also part of the community that the students are in. Secondly, it provides the students an opportunity to explore and engage with it in view that it will soon be demolished. And thirdly, in partnering with the Singapore Memory Project, the memories of Rochor Centre collected in this documentation can be shared with the larger school community and the wider public. Also, their findings may be added to the pool of the Singaporean collective memory in the portal.
Therefore, since the heart of Remembering Rochor and the Singapore Memory Project are aligned and in the same place, the collaboration with SMP was organic, symbiotic and authentic.
SP: Victoria Junior College has done a piece on Rochor Centre (Hearts of Rochor Centre) as well. While they took a more straightforward approach, SOTA used different mediums, such as photography and poetry, to document Rochor Centre. How do you think this shows a different aspect of Rochor Centre?
WK: On one level, since memory is a deeply personal matter, and the nature of Remembering Rochor is afterall remembrance, this project concerns itself more with capturing and interpreting the nuances, subtleties and sentimentalities of the place to evoke the affective rather than relaying information with an objectivity (or straightforwardness if you will) that the journalistic approach lends itself to.
“For the last three weeks at Rochor we focused on observation of the area, to gathered subject matter as a team. We pointed out random things that caught our attention, and also tried to experience running errands in Rochor; we visited numerous shops and covered a great area. Then we would head to the rooftop playground on the fourth level, a deserted but windy and peaceful area where we would complete our individual poems. This repeated pattern was comfortable for all of us and gave us a sense of familiarity.”
—Cheri Wee, Remembering Rochor contributor
On another related level, using a variety of different mediums allows the students to find one that best fits how they would like to express themselves according to their own strengths and artistic sensibilities. This approach of documentation provides the students an avenue to share their own memories of Rochor Centre through their choice of photography, poetry, painting, etc, besides merely taking on the role as a scribe. Consequently, there is another dimension at work here—the students are remembering how they remember.
SP: Did your students face any difficulties in producing the work? What kind of advice or guidance did you give them? How have the students benefited from the project?
WK: The students did indeed face challenges in producing the work. However, such learning curves are only natural for learning and service-learning to take place. To this end, the students were encouraged to see these struggles as opportunities to take risks, reflect, improvise or maybe even deal with the prospect of little yield rather than view challenges as obstacles that got in the way of achieving their goals.
The language barrier was one such recurring challenge because most of the residents and even retailers at Rochor Centre are conversant in Chinese dialects. The closest proximity to communicate was in Mandarin. Even so, the students took it in their strides and tried to piece together what they could through interviews and personal observations. This linguistic divide however, is an interesting food for thought for the mostly English-speaking students to consider. Why is there a linguistic divide to begin with? Is it simply a generational phenomenon?
Another challenge encountered is the unwillingness of some residents and retailers of Rochor Centre to be interviewed or “documented”. Helping the students process such rejection is delicate and crucial. While the students have good intentions, they have to know that it should not be assumed that the people of Rochor Centre share the aims of Remembering Rochor, and that their reaction, be it warm or distant must be respected. With the recent increase in awareness and sympathy for places that face demolition, relocation or exhumation, those caught in the middle might not be comfortable to be put in the spotlight while the debate in the public realm goes on.
Besides facilitating the soft-skills, I also took on the role of a quasi-curator in assembling the eBook in deciding with the students, which of their poems, photos, and paintings were to be chosen or sequenced, and in what layout. Through this, students learn which works work more effectively, how different art forms complement each other and what each person in this project has to say about what has been learned.
SP: What were some of your students’ reflections or thoughts after the project? Do you think it is important for students to be involved in projects like these? Why?
WK: Reaching out to the residents and retailers of Rochor Centre who might not understand them or be willing to speak with them was a humbling experience for the students. Many of these 14-year-old students never had the need or experience of talking with strangers. The students learned that taking such risks requires bravery, confidence and optimism even when the odds maybe stacked against them. I am of the opinion that such resilience and altruism is very important for young people to cultivate, and I am glad to have observed that the students involved in this project have pushed themselves to show such attributes.
“Since the closure of the SAC project, I now visit Rochor Centre on my own accord. Originally perceiving Rochor Centre to be just another estate, I have now come to appreciate it for its simple tranquility, elusive to the hustle and bustle of Singapore’s hectic pace.
“At Rochor Centre, I have learnt to be in the present and savour the moments without having to fall in step with the marching mechanical momentum of city life. I find enjoyment browsing at Rochor Centre, observing the pigeons from the rooftop playground, basking in the close community’s sense of trust and finding companionship with Rochor’s Cat.”
—Kirsten Teo, Remembering Rochor contributor
With regards to the demolition of Rochor Centre to ease traffic conditions in that area, overall, the students showed a progression from being ambivalent to being more advocative in weighing critically the pace of Singapore’s efficiency against that which lay in the path of progress. For a balanced perspective, the students visited the URA City Gallery in their first SAC session for a more comprehensive understanding of urban renewal in the context of Singapore’s constrains and innovations. The students have realised that there is no easy solution. In the process, they have come to be more appreciative of Singapore’s architectural heritage and more cognizant of the layers of endearment that lie between bricks and mortar.
“I feel awfully sad for the residents that will be moving when Rochor Center is demolished for the new highway. There has been so much life and it is so textured and now it is all going to be destroyed. This is the reason why I feel that it is my responsibility to record down as much things as I can so that later generations will be able to understand more about their past and have something to anchor them.”
—Byrant Chong, Remembering Rochor contributor
SP: In what other ways do you think your students or young people in general can get involved in the memory project?
WK: They can get involved by sharing with their peers their contribution to the Singapore Memory Project. For example, the students involved in Remembering Rochor might be encouraged to add on their own memories or encourage their friends to do likewise when they see their efforts being featured and acknowledged.
Why not turn your memory into something artistic? Be it a drawing, painting, video, poem, interpretative dance—send it to us at the Singapore Memory Portal! You can get some inspiration by downloading Remembering Rochor here. You can also check us out on FaceBook or follow us on Twitter!
Singapore Memory Project