Sporting a short hairstyle, Felicia also ditched her spectacles during the nights when she observed the landscapes she sought to sketch out. Her pair of spectacles could set off alarm bells because it made her look more like an officer from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Looking like a CID officer was problematic because the police presence in red light districts was often unwelcomed by sex workers. This aversion does not solely stem from the sex workers being on the wrong side of the law. In fact, the sides of our law are frustratingly nebulous: prostitution is permitted but soliciting isn’t; the licence, in the form of a yellow card, is quite an elusive document. Rather, the subjects of Project X’s exhibit, Unheard Voices of the Red Light District, were chafed by the manhandling proclivities of law enforcers.
These proclivities were one of the issues which emerged as Felicia combed through the extensive interviews Project X’s volunteers conducted with eleven sex workers. Her year-long collaboration with Project X culminated with the exhibit at the Substation. The lead up to this provocative medley of art forms was not a walk in the park.
During her opening address at the debut of this exhibit, Felicia was forthcoming in telling the packed room that she did not have personal contact with any of the sex workers. The ceramic works in the exhibit, each symbolising one of the eleven subjects, were the handicraft of Project X volunteers who had received instruction from Felicia. Ceramic pieces like a glossy tree and a brilliantly coloured sun stemmed from the conversations the volunteers had with their subjects. The former would then convey these ideas to Felicia.
Such a circuitous methodology can be understood within the touchy context of Project X’s fieldwork. Vanessa Ho, the assistant project coordinator, shared during the exhibit’s opening night that it took many years to nurture a rapport and establish fibres of trust between the sex workers and the volunteers. Felicia did not want to intrude on these fragile and valuable ties. This gave rise to a bugging anxiety surrounding the representation of these workers.
Unlike Felicia who had not come into contact with the subjects, Dixie Chan, a volunteer who produced a short film from the exhibit, knew the faces behind the eleven voices. However, Dixie still could not shirk the anxiety that her product was an unadulterated conduit for the voices. For her, there was this nagging “discomfort of trying to play god”.
Dixie also faced another problem when producing the film. She had to persuade her friends to play the roles of a sex worker and her clients. These characters mimed the experiences and conundrums of sex workers while the voices of the actual sex workers provide the running commentary. These scenes are only, and literally, half the film.
A white pillar accentuates the partition between two screens. On the left screen, the audience catches glimpses of the sex worker’s life. On the right screen, a stream of images brings to the fore the protections and privileges non-sex workers benefit from, like the recognisable “Stop Abuse” words slashing across a menacing fist after the 2007 incident when a student delivered a series of punches to a bus driver. This contrast seeks to drive home Project X’s core message that sex workers should not receive the “physical, verbal and mental abuse … meted out either by the public, their customers, or law enforcers”.
Drifting from the centre of the exhibit, which showcase the two-panelled short film, one will be able to lounge on a black sofa while reading a thin booklet containing the thick details disclosed by the sex workers.
Rita has to contend with caustic remarks like: “kenina chibai” and “bo sui”. Bella’s first run in with a “gang group” of police in 1995 is as follows: “... one gang group, pliak, catch me from behind, and push you know. Oh my god! I think I still got the [bruise] … So that is my bad experience, very bad experience.” Like bad clients, the bad encounters with law enforcers leave indelible mental scars.
Felicia hopes to take the arts beyond the aesthetics and into the realm of advocacy. To this end, Project X has displayed a concise petition to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Manpower, Tharman Shanmugaratnam. The petition proposes a dialogue to resolve the ambiguities of the law that leave sex workers stranded in a sticky, grey pit of vulnerability. Moved by the exhibit, some petitioners have included little notes beside their signatures ranging from simple symbols like a smiley (=)) and a heart (<3) to indignant and impatient statements like “Equal rights! It’s about time!” and “Let’s be fair to everyone, shall we? I want to say the pledge and mean it!”
One of the eleven voices told Dixie about her daughter learning Russian (“.. like a proud mother,” Dixie said). This mother was apprehensive of her daughter’s possible relocation to Russia - a typical parental concern. Another voice related how one of her ways to handle a belligerent client is to “... beat his head till it bleeds!” This zesty mix of vulnerability and mettle also challenges the homogeneous mould of victimhood, which Dixie was wary to avoid. Ultimately, this young filmmaker wanted to “shine a spotlight on issues that are often drowned out in the hustle and bustle”. By muting the hustle and bustle with the unflorid and contemplative film, Unheard Voices of the Red Light District adds a human texture to the faceless voices of eleven Singaporeans.
Details of the exhibition:
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