One Friday at lunch, I found myself gobbling seafood pasta and glutinous rice cooked by Yim Fong, a senior collaborator in our project. After our morning session, she hurried back to her home a few blocks away to heat up her dishes for us, and returned sweating and triumphant. It turned out that because she lives alone, having company for meals is something she yearns for. I was glad she had no qualms inviting us to partake in meals with her.
At the Wellness Kampung’s kitchen counter, she seemed energised as her food was enjoyed by the project team, some other seniors, centre staff, a community nurse, and regional connectors (a role to be explained later). The rice, topped with Chinese sausage and oily roasted peanuts, was perfectly matched with sambal that had been left at the centre by the community nurse who regularly stations there. We were a group of women from different backgrounds, ages, and of different roles in a fluid community, breaking bread together after a sombre discussion on life and death that some of us had engaged in shortly before. The next week, we shared lunch again.
Senior collaborator Chia Yim Fong and the second lunch she prepared. Photo by Salty Xi Jie Ng
It all began late in 2022 when the invitation came to lead this year’s Both Sides, Now project in Yishun as ArtsWok, having successfully collaborated with Drama Box for 10 years, embarked on a new phase of their flagship programme. Or should I say it all began 10 years ago with ArtsWok’s first edition of Both Sides, Now at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital? This year’s Both Sides, Now is a body of water joining the larger ocean of work that has been kneaded by many willing hearts delving into taboo subjects. We have come to join this larger sea, everyone who has found it in their destiny to be here this ripe time, with each other.
Our project is different because it will prioritise longer term engagement and be presented in a more intimate way. It is also in deeper collaboration with Yishun Health, a public healthcare institution that is quietly changing the face of health in ways that include expansive definitions of health —particularly population health— underpinned by Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), using as one of its tools a system called Participatory Care and Support Planning (PCSP). For the purpose of setting the scene in our story, it is important to explain both these corporate-sounding acronyms, which are, at heart, about liberation. Surprising, in our island-state. And, how could we work for less?
(from left) Working on a map of assets and resources. Photo by Stacy Huang
Adapted from studies of the UK health system, PCSP is essentially a set of values and skills in communication that gives people ownership of their own health — unusual in paternalistic Singapore where healthcare professionals are prescriptive and typically honoured as figures who know better. How refreshing to be an arts worker sitting in a training room with healthcare staff actively having their conceptions of power broken down with each practice conversation, and willingly so. How moving to be in the same position while Cormac Russell, a global proponent of ABCD who has been working with Yishun Health for years, answered my question about how to launch a partnership where funders approve projected outcomes, when ABCD, at its purest, is about asking communities what they care about doing and helping them lead the way.
Our project is different because it will prioritise longer term engagement and be presented in a more intimate way.
“You are funding a process, not a product,” he spoke right to my heart. Although he was speaking about asset-based community development, arts-based community development approaches are very similar; I consider them on the same spectrum as socially engaged art practices, which are about experiences, relationships, and processes — this is the art itself, not objects. The people sharing the space are the primary audience of the art that is happening. It is something the secondary and tertiary audiences cannot fully be part of — but they can experience what was shared through the project’s expressions, in forms such as images, video, installation, writing.
And even if the instigators of the project have preconceived the subject matter and envisions ways the project will unfold, there must be lots of space for how the community or the collaborators find their agency within this framework, or even change it. Only then can we honour them as subjects and experts of their singular experiences. In ABCD lingo, this is a mix of “done with” and “done by” the community. Perhaps stiff to be categorical, but helpful nonetheless in thinking about relational artmaking. In employing both asset and arts-based community development approaches to nourish equitable collaborations, individual and community values can be creatively expressed.
Senior collaborator Munglam Devi and 765 Wellness Kampung manager Mary Ong at the steps of the Asian Civilisations Museum. Photo by Salty Xi Jie Ng
Situating, beginning, ploughing
Our project was to be birthed at the Blk 765 Yishun St 72 Wellness Kampung — one of three vibrant neighbourhood centres, providing health screenings and mostly senior-led activities like language and craft classes, singing and dance sessions, a repair club run by a group of older men, and Share-A-Pot, a weekly meal following a set of mobility exercises. The 765 Kampung’s bubbly manager Mary soon became my ally and link to the community. I met seniors via Mary and other Yishun Health regional connectors, who manage Wellness Kampungs, run community health posts, and generally work to connect and care for people in their community in Yishun and Sembawang. Artist Stacy Huang has been assisting the creative process as she forays into working with seniors.