A walk in Telok Ayer becomes a journey that spans hidden pasts and new futures.
There has been no shortage of art walks happening in Singapore. My fellow writers Vithya Subramaniam (who has practically turned researching about walks into an art) and Dia Hakim wrote about it here and here for ArtsEquator. I myself was involved in making one last year, and LASALLE students help to create a new one each year in different areas in Singapore such as Little India. Solo perambulation isn’t only the forte of artists, of course – since the pandemic struck, many have returned to the simple pleasures of this meditative, ritualistic and semi-aerobic activity. For the arts, it’s a perfect form to manage the prohibitions against gathering during this time. But what sets one art walk apart from another lies in the story – the ability to paint a picture and set the scene, taking us away from where we are and into the world of the artist’s making. Thankfully, re:walk Telok Ayer does well to invest in the stories of its artists, turning the sleepy environs of Telok Ayer on a weekend into a delightful personal offering for its listener.
It’s best not to know too much about re:walk Telok Ayer. I entered into it thinking it would be similar to the past projects of Secretive Thing, one of its organisers. Secretive Thing curates one-of-a-kind thought provoking experiences that centres the audience within an immersive journey involving surprise venues and anonymous communications – they’ve put me to work in nameless industrial buildings, making me question the ills of capitalism (I think it was called Secretive Thing 11); and I’ve gone on covert missions in Waterloo Centre and pondered on the idea of urban surveillance (Secretive Thing 215, which we spoke about in this podcast). It’s a bit of a ‘shady’ enterprise, entirely by design, with the masterminds being credited only as “Lemon & Koko”. The entire conceit just works. Hence when I received an email from Secretive Thing in January, I clicked “buy” almost instantly. Nevermind that the subject line was “You are invited to not a Secretive Thing!”.
A more careful reader would have realised sooner that re:walk Telok Ayer was something entirely different. It’s a collaboration between Secretive Thing and Doit.sg, a company run by tour guide Tricia Lui, which explains why it takes you around some familiar historic sights like Thian Hock Keng Temple along Telok Ayer Street, and the shops of Amoy Street. And yet, there is a distinct arts perspective as well, with some of the audiovisual journeys led by artists such as dancer-choreographer Lim Chin Huat and musician mm_mmatt, who share their own memories of various spots in the area such as the now-demolished Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre (TAPAC), bringing history to life via their personal stories. The tour itself is presented in the form of a video on an iPad which you can sling around your neck, and is self-directed – though there are staff around and certain elements of interactivity that act as gentle interventions to the public space.
Prior to arriving at Telok Ayer Park which is the starting point for the walk, participants are asked to fill in a Google Form where they have to indicate whether they have any personal connections to Telok Ayer, and their ideal walking speed. Then there are more “fun” questions, asking them to choose between options such as Experimental/Traditional, Music/Dance, Epic/Pedestrian. I think this form is key to shaping your experience for re:walk, as you are then assigned two out of six possible journeys as part of the roughly 70-minute-long experience. Choose something you usually like, and you may feel inclined to enjoy it; choose something out of your comfort zone, and you could potentially be disengaged, or be pleasantly surprised. I chose to share that I had some memories of TAPAC (which prior to being an important arts centre was Telok Ayer Primary School), and so was unsurprised when it was incorporated into the stories I was presented with.
As far as Singapore history goes, re:walk doesn’t delve too deeply into all the sights of Telok Ayer, and some key sites are skipped in the interest of time and focus. But there is still room for discovery and surprise, as the storytellers reveal their connections with the space, taking you through back alleys in Ann Siang and pointing out seemingly nondescript shops of Amoy Street. My walk took me on a journey led by Lim Chin Huat, whose story centred around how he had to close his contemporary dance company, ECNAD, in 2013 after 17 years of existence, the same year TAPAC was closed for redevelopment. Lim’s story was quietly powerful, and I found myself moved by his dedication to nurturing a new generation of artists even while harbouring such loss – an undying spirit that can be seen in so many artists in Singapore today. I won’t spoil it, but there is a point in the walk which made my breath catch in my throat. In fact, the design of the route for Lim’s story was perfectly complementary to his words, making us aware of our parallel journeys through the same spaces over the years, and the transformations that he speaks about so calmly. In the denouement, Lim explodes into dance in a subterranean space, mourning for a lost history, at peace with the revelation of time, and open to the possibilities of the future.
It is in these moments that re:walk creates magic, the kind I have come to expect of Secretive Thing. It is not large-scale spectacular illusions, but close-up revelations that end up being much more profound. At the end of the journey, I flip through the notebooks that are offered as a way for us to leave a handwritten note, and read what past participants had written (which are a signature of Secretive Thing – see here). There were detailed accounts of what each note-writer resonated with, personally directed at the storytellers – an attempt at reaching out, so important during these times. I realise where the roots of my initial discomfort had come from. re:walk is funded by the STB-NAC Performing Arts Tours Pilot Grant, which supports the development of performing arts tours, which means there is this small caveat of being a kind of commodified product that will eventually be aimed at tourists. Of course, this is a cynical take, and everyone is finding their own ways to survive today, but I think my fear lies in the need to preserve the delightful combination of magic, subversion and mutual trust that lies at the heart of every Secretive Thing offering. Still, I have faith that artists will always know how to balance competing objectives. Even as we reveal some of our secrets, let us keep some cards close to our chest.
re:walk Telok Ayer runs on weekends from now to 27 February 2022. Tickets are S$28 (excluding ticketing fee), info here.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.