Get a feel of homes from Singapore's past

SINGAPORE - Fuelled by the Singapore Memory Project, The Plaza at the National Library has been transformed into a nostalgic space, featuring a group exhibition of four projects themed around the concept of home.

The biggest of these projects is First Homes, an interactive community art installation. It features interpretations of five homes from the Singapore of yesteryear, based on personal stories of Singaporeans who once resided in such residences.

There is a 1950s tenement house, a 1960s shophouse, a 1970s colonial-style semi-detached house, a 1950s to 1980s kampung home and a 1970s first-generation Jurong Town Council flat.

It is funded by irememberSG, which aims to encourage organisations and individuals to collect, interpret, contextualise and showcase Singapore memories in its jubilee year.

The project is an intergenerational collaboration among a group of four young people and five interviewees, all older than 50.

The idea came from project leader Jean Loo, 30, director at content creation studio Logue. She was inspired by the 22 years her mother's family spent living and running a tailoring business out of a shophouse in Upper Serangoon Road, between 1954 to 1976. Her mother, Ms Yue Ngan Ying, 60, who works in a bank, is one of the five seniors interviewed for the project.

To prepare for the installation, Ms Loo, together with her collaborators - Logue project director Yang Huiwen, 31, and experience designers Joyce Li, 26, and Chen Weiyan, 26 - spent six months between June and December last year doing in-depth interviews about first homes with 30 Singaporeans aged 19 to 82.

The group then chose five of the more interesting stories to recreate for the installation, sourcing everything from furniture and plants to artefacts and videos to bring each home to life.

Each of the five installations features items that are characteristic of that era and is centred on a handwritten account from each participant.

For example, the kampung home of retiree Benedict Low, 64, has a thatched roof made of palm leaves, lush foliage of "retro" plants such as mother-in-law's tongue and a chicken coop, which he fashioned himself for the exhibition.

Next door, freelance videographer Ong Boon Kok's childhood tenement home was built to scale, given that its floor area measured only 3m by 3.5m.

Mr Ong, 51, says his family of seven lived amid opium dens at 7 Pasar Lane in the 1960s and detailed anecdotes about his childhood adorn the walls.

The result is a moving exhibition that gives the viewer a taste of life in homes that have since vanished among the gleaming skyscrapers of modern day Singapore.

Visitors get to experience the rollicking expat parties held in the colonial bungalows in Wilton Close and the lush greenery and community spirit found in the kampungs of Lorong Ong Lye in Paya Lebar.

For the group behind First Homes, it has been a labour of love, despite some kinks along the way. Last Friday, a freak thunderstorm caused the kampung exhibit to collapse, forcing the team to rebuild it. They also overshot their budget and had to pay approximately 10 per cent of the overall costs out of their own pockets.

They would not disclose the total funding they received for the project. However, the group members say they have no regrets.

"Listening to these stories about struggles of life back in the day helps put all the convenience we enjoy today into perspective," says Ms Loo. "More importantly, it gives us a chance to celebrate individual life stories, which is incredibly significant for us."

For those whose homes have been recreated, the project has been a chance to reminisce how life back then shaped who they are today.

"It's hard for the younger generation to imagine growing up around acres of fruit trees and helping your parents to cook, get water from wells and rear poultry," says Mr Low. "Hopefully this project will help them understand what life was like and relate better to our history."

First Homes runs until April 30 at The Plaza, National Library, from 10am to 9pm daily. More information and the personal stories from all 30 collaborators can be found on

This article was first published on April 5, 2015.
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