Transient workers in Singapore aren’t quite as their name suggests. Most of them have contracts of at least four years, that’s more time than several expatriates I know who have lived and worked in this country, but you wouldn’t refer to a transient worker as an expat. The classification implies more than the duration of time a person spends working in a foreign country; it also defines the kind of treatment they receive.
Tai Shuxia is a Singaporean artist who’s using art to understand the lives of transient workers in her home country.
Photos by Debby Ng
TS: I began classes in early 2011. I've done creative art classes with migrant workers before at the women's shelter. When someone suggested I should hold one at Healthserve too, I thought it would be a good idea and a new experience because I'd be interacting with a different group of workers. It'd be good for the workers too because they can use their spare time to exercise their creativity and expressive skills.
TS: I have three objectives for my art classes. Some take precedence over others because the men may be more inclined to certain suggestions, but not to others. My objectives in order of precedence: free and creative expression through visual arts, to think of art as a tool for communication personally and with the community, and to discuss and talk about ideas and issues that are important to the students.
TS: I studied popular education, and would often go back to my notes and look up activities that I can do with the students. The first thing I usually do with new students is to try to get them used to the idea that anyone can draw and that you do not need 'talent' to do it. In my classes, meaning is more important than aesthetic. Once they got used to the fear of drawing and realized that they can draw, they become more open minded and accepting to new ideas.
TS: All of my students are Chinese nationals, so language was a main challenge. I have to find out the terms to technical words in Chinese before each class. My Mandarin is not very good, and the students told me that they have some problems understanding complicated ideas. So I try to work within my language capacity and when someone in the group grasps what I'm trying to say, he will explain it to the others.
TS: I juggle between teaching 'artistic skills' and doing discussions and free expression on paper. Most of the students expected to learn how to draw and paint, so I try to balance it by teaching them something new once a while so that it isn't like they are the ones giving, they also receive some 'technical' knowledge in return, which has given them a little more confidence at drawing.
TS: Another challenge I had was to get the students to discuss about issues and ideas that are important to them. That would be good material to be expressed as drawings, and to be shared with viewers as pictures can help overcome a language. The irony was that I found I needed language to bring the issues out! And I felt rather handicapped. Other factors that made this difficult could be also be because the students found it difficult to talk about their issues with others around. It didn't help that the participants change often, with only two or three regulars. So it was challenging to establish a rapport.
TS: Having studied art, I'm attuned to the different styles of drawings and painting. Their art reflects who they are. I was vaguely amused that even though these guys have never drawn before, you could see that they were imitating Chinese paintings and styles! When I asked them to draw their portraits, one person drew a painted face in a Chinese opera style. When I asked them to draw metaphors, many drew rabbits to express meanings because it was the rabbit year in the Chinese zodiac. I thought to myself that they are defined by their country rather than ethnicity. A Singaporean Chinese wouldn't draw something like that.
TS: Their art tells their stories. You can read a lot of things from it; where they are from, their influences (historical and cultural baggage), experiences, hopes and dreams, thought processes. Their drawings are raw because I tried my best not to impose my own aesthetic sense or conceptual ideas onto them, only giving them examples to help them understand the drawing exercises and to get the ball rolling. They have had to come up with their own art, dig around their past experiences, and to find contentment in their art.
TS: Migrant workers in Singapore, to tell the truth, I don't think they have time for art. Their working hours are too long and they earn too little for it. At the same time I think that that is why they need it. They need to do something to relax and have fun; to talk and share their burden, to let others know, to reorganize their thoughts, and to do something that gives them a little freedom. Unfortunately it is very difficult to do this if you are exhausted all the time and you just want to take the extra time that you have to meet up with friends and run errands.
TS: Art can be beneficial to everyone, not just migrant workers. It is a tool to express yourself, communicate to others, as well as to hold-back when necessary. I learned a lot about their lifestyles and practices back home as they often like to draw about those. They would also talk and draw about the accidents and the problems that they encountered in Singapore.
TS: Some of the guys can be really creative when given the chance to and this despite the fact that the last time they drew was probably when they were 7 or 8 in school. Most of them are now in their 40s. Their wealth of experiences were definitely richer than mine and yet they were willing to share and listen and follow the instructions of someone much younger than them. I'm inspired by their patience and willingness to explore.
TS: Drawing allows workers some mental relief. It gives them an opportunity to give voice to their hard living conditions, unfair treatment, their origins and their individuality. I believe that Art as a voice is fit for educational and advocacy purposes; to encourage mutual understanding, and as a catalyst for positive change.