In 1935, a businessman named Chia Pak Shoon bought a piece of land on Mount Sophia for the location’s good feng shui – it was set against a hill and faced the sea, which is supposed to bring in fortune – and built a 16-room house on it. For the next 77 years, 13 Wilkie Terrace became the place his family called home, but after Chia and his wife passed away and the younger generations started moving to other places around and outside Singapore, the family decided that it’s time to let their home go.
- 8 Jun: Old Romances, a 77-minute documentary
- 4, 11 & 18 Jun: Free Salsa sessions
- 13 & 14 Jun: Displaced I and Displaced II
- 15 Sat: Regression
- 21 Jun: SA @ 13 Wilkie – A Sound Tour
To send the beloved old house off with a big farewell, Chia’s grandson, 34-year-old artist Yen Phang, decided to get the local creative community together and breathe life into the building one last time before it got demolished to make way for a shiny new condo.
‘My cousin’s [whose immediate family were the last people to stay at the house] original offer was for me to show my paintings there. However, it felt like I wasn’t doing our family home justice to merely use it as “empty-walls-to-hang-stuff-on”,’ says Phang. ‘13 Wilkie Terrace has always been about the people that used the space. It’s the human activity and relationships within the house that gave it life and emotional resonance; it has acted like a battery, storing up memories and stories, both good and bad, as with any other family.’
That was when the idea for the Displacements festival was first seeded, and things took off quickly from there. Phang was so excited that he posted up a message on Facebook that same night, and even did a mockup visualisation so his friends could get a better idea of the project he had in mind.
‘The very next day, eight artists expressed interest,’ he says happily. ‘Because I’ve been doing a bit of arts writing myself over the last two years, I got to meet quite a few artists in the local scene and already had an idea of who might be interested in this project. The beautiful thing is that the artists I had in mind contacted me before I even pitched it to them in further detail, and from there, other artists were brought in through word-of-mouth.’
In just a few months, he has managed to recruit a motley crew of local talents who wanted to take part in the community arts project. ‘This project was a direct personal challenge to the arts community in Singapore to see whether we could step up quickly and fervently to respond to topical issues and our local environment,’ Phang elaborates, while mentioning some of the criteria that had to be filled before considering people for participation.
‘All the artists had to be serious professional artists who were recognised by their peers for their sustained practice, and they also had to really show that they were responding to the theme in a genuine way. This isn’t a commercial show – it’s a community event tackling a real issue in Singapore. Thematic engagement and emotional resonance were the key ingredients.’ The name Displacements was originally just a working title, says Phang. ‘It was inspired by our family’s immediate feelings of selling the house after 77 years – but the title just stuck and the artists seemed to connect with the theme.’
He continues: ‘It’s something we are all confronted with in Singapore – and increasingly so in recent times – what with accelerating urban growth and a planned increase in population.’ The 16 artists who have been selected all work with different media and will be showcasing their pieces across five rooms, taking the form of paintings, drawings, installations, photographs, ceramics and sound and video works.
A series of supporting performances, workshops and other activities will also be taking place alongside it, and whether you’re into spoken word, want to learn how to Salsa or wish to contribute to the discussion of what ‘displacement’ means to you, you’re invited to make yourself at home for the duration of the festival.
‘This is the first time I’ve done something like this. Before Displacements I was more of a lonely painter cooped up in my studio!’ Phang admits, laughing. While funding was always an issue – the NAC and a few other organisations helped out, but the artists had to bear their own costs and the rest of the money came out of Phang’s own pocket – he’s still proud and happy about how everything has turned out.
‘The best thing about it is to get the opportunity to work with friends, acquaintances and strangers over a creative community collaboration, forming friendships in the process,’ says Phang earnestly. ‘Secondly, it’s made me so much more appreciative of my own country and the local arts scene. Who needs to compare oneself to New York or London or Berlin when we’ve got creativity and initiative in our own backyard?’
A mere five and a half months since Phang’s cousin first offered him the place to use as his artistic playground, Displacements is now ready to kick off as one of the biggest community-centred art project Singapore has seen this year. But even as the festival launches, he’s planning for more. ‘Documentation will be a key component to this project, so the next step will be to continue our online presence, as well as produce a coffee-table book,’ Phang says. ‘We are hoping that this will be part of something ongoing, whether it’s a month-long festival programme or a one-day festival.
For example, Rochor’s demolition has already been planned, so that could be a potential spot. The absence of a place can be a presence of its own.’
Time Out Singapore is the official media partner of Displacements. It is being held at 13 Wilkie Terrace from 2-23 Jun.