Bernice Wong, 23, freelance photographer; Joses Kuan, 26, currently doing his Masters degree; and Ng Yiqin, 24, freelance filmmaker, are headed to Bangladesh, where many of the workers are from, on a mission “to stretch the boundaries and explore what goes on the other side.”
The seed for the project, called “Beyond The Border, Behind The Men”, was planted after “discussions and deliberations over a few kopi sessions” among the 3 friends.
The endeavour will see them visiting the families of some of the workers whom they came to know from their time as volunteers with The Cuff Road Project (TCRP), a soup kitchen which is run by the non-governmental organisation, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). TCRP provides free meals to migrant workers who are in need and assists them with other work-related problems as well.
“It took only a few sessions at the soup kitchen to create a very strong impression on me,” Bernice says. “I started to learn about this other side of the men I was previously unaware of.” Her relationship with the workers blossomed into friendship, which gave her insights into the personal lives of the workers. “Another thing that struck me was the resilience and positivism they have for life despite the precarious situation they were caught in,” she adds.
“It has grown from a working relationship to dinner time conversations to more personal ties – including invitations to their spontaneous music sessions and even sending them off at the airport,” Yiqin says.
“Working with the men was never just a professional relationship,” explains Joses, who volunteered with TCRP during his undergrad days. “[I] was privy to intimate stories of hope and anguish, family and love, interrupted dreams and more importantly, the resilience of the human spirit. For me, the message of hope and resilience has always not been given the attention it warranted.”
“What hit me the most was the degree of invisibility faced by these migrant men,” says Yiqin. “They are mostly seen as mere labourers or have to deal with very stale stereotypes.” He has always wanted to do a film from a socially conscious angle. “So when Bernice approached me with her idea, I jumped on it.”
Instead of focusing on the troubles which these workers face, the group’s project aims to “convey a message of hope and inspiration.”
“[We] are not trivializing or denying that the conditions and circumstances that confront the men here in Singapore leave a lot to be desired,” the group says. “Having volunteered with migrant workers, we know too well that their everyday reality here is a precarious one - negotiating the various contours of salary and debt, accommodation, remittance, errant employers, injury and more.”
Because the problems the workers face are often the focus, the group feels that we “often lose sight of the fact that migration is very much a social process involving real people - feelings and sentiments, affections and attachments, memories, love and loss.” Hence, the 3 friends hope to expand this narrative to include stories of love and life which inspires. “They have inspired us and we want to pass that story on.”
“We often lose sight of the fact that despite the incredible odds and abject situation that confront them here, the men seem to keep coming back, risk life and limb when here, and bite the bullet for their families,” Joses says. “The strength they drew from images of home, memories of family, and the sacrifices that the ‘left behind’ make was a recurring theme in my time with them. The project wanted to capture this - stories that spread cheer and hope, not doom and gloom. Stories that salute the human spirit and dignity and simultaneously can inspire us.”
“Their stories are also a rich tapestry of emotions, warmth and glow,” the group says. “Beyond the one-dimensional caricature of anguish and despair, there is much to celebrate. At the same time, we are careful not to aggrandize or romanticize their lives.”
Behind the Border, Behind the Man will showcase how the families of the workers cope, adapt and negotiate the physical absence of their loved ones and the distance between them. “We pay tribute to the men and those left behind,” the group says, “and also how ‘invisibility’ and ‘anonymity’ are celebrated in their own unique ways.”
“Whether it is maintaining contact through the humble village telephone, the taken-for-granted written word, conversation with others or through other tools and props, the migrant is never really invisible and absent,” the group explains.
“He is celebrated, ‘re-lived and reproduced’, and never a distant and amorphous figure. We want to showcase that celebration, to pay homage to the men and those left behind, and ultimately, how they live and embrace life.”
Most of the men whose families they will be visiting are still here in Singapore. “They are either gainfully working or jobless because of a workplace injury or salary-related case,” Yiqin says. “Despite the various circumstances, they were enthusiastic to have us visit their country and readily invited us into their homes. We will graciously be hosted by their families in various districts.”
While the men may be or have spent a prolonged period away from home, they are nonetheless very much a part of the lives of their loved ones, “weaved and embedded” into the everyday life back in Bangladesh.
“Whether its waxing nostalgia about home through photographs, collecting snail mail, sending back presents, making calls, and receiving news from a relative or village friend who’s just arrived in Singapore,” the group says, “these moments of affection and endearment are what make us human too.”
“We are sure that we will (and definitely want to) be surprised by more of their untold stories,” Yiqin says.
The 3 friends leave for Bangladesh in a week's time.
Publichouse.sg will feature the stories from Beyond the Border, Behind the Men when the group has completed its project. So, stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, do "like" the project's Facebook page here.
Here are some pictures taken on Sunday at one of the favourite haunts of migrant workers in Singapore – Little India at Serangoon Road.
Pictures by Andrew Loh.