Fans of forays a varied bunch

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE:Artist Heman Chong's walking videos are viewed by people all over the world, including a man from jail in Europe.
CAPTIVE AUDIENCE:Artist Heman Chong's walking videos are viewed by people all over the world, including a man from jail in Europe.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

It is a drizzly October afternoon when I join artist Heman Chong for a walk through Telok Blangah Hill Park.

The air is thick with humidity and raindrops fall on our umbrellas in a gentle pitter-patter.

"This is my favourite sound in the world," says Chong, 43, cocking his ear at the rain and tiptoeing so his shoes do not squeak.

For the past two years, the avid walker has been filming his journeys on foot through neighbourhoods in Singapore and abroad. These immersive videos, shot from his perspective, range from a forest walk in the middle of a thunderstorm to a nocturnal amble through Geylang to a tour of the British Museum. The walking videos - there are about 300 now - are uploaded on YouTube for his Ambient Walking channel.

Chong's 6,790 subscribers are a varied bunch. Some are fans of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), a tingling sensation triggered by stimuli such as certain sounds.

Other viewers are bed-bound, disabled or overseas Singaporeans who miss home. One man even tunes in from jail in Europe.

We are retracing one of his most popular routes - an hour-long video where he walked through the forested hill during a thunderstorm. The video, which was uploaded in February, now has more than 145,000 views. During the wildfires in California, he saw a big spike in viewers from that area.

Chong, a fan of Japan-based "walktuber" Rambalac, does not regard Ambient Walking as art. But walking, more generally, remains a vital part of his artistic process.

"I am processing a lot of my work when I walk," he says.

His journeys have also taken him to the backdoors of embassies, which he photographed for his Foreign Affairs project; and to empty, public-accessible spaces in Singapore, which he captured in 1,001 images that were later printed on more than seven decades of calendars for Calendars (2020-2096).

More recently, he created Writing While Walking And Other Stories (2020), a dense wall of text displayed on the Singapore Art Museum's hoarding. He composed the 2,581 words on his iPhone during an eight-hour walk around Singapore.

"I wanted to think about how I could sublimate that experience of walking and writing into an image, rather than a text. There was no traditional narrative, no plot. The end point was just exhaustion."

Chong, who does not have a driver's licence and likes to get around on foot when he can, spends at least two hours walking every day. It helps him keep fit, relieves anxiety and can also be very meditative.

"If you try walking for long distances, after an hour or two, your brain goes empty - at least mine does," adds the artist, who would have gone on Japan's famous Nakasendo trail this year if not for the global pandemic.

He describes the act of walking as a "denominator action", a term he came up with to describe simple actions such as reading and jumping.

"I refuse for my art to be associated with any complex actions. I'm always looking for a simple gesture," says Chong, who recently finished redacting all the words in spy novelist John le Carre's Call For The Dead (1961), leaving only verbs behind. This particular project will be exhibited at STPI - Creative Workshop & Gallery in February.

• Watch Heman Chong's rain walk at str.sg/Ju8x

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2020, with the headline 'Fans of forays a varied bunch'. Print Edition | Subscribe