Migrant workers contribute to local arts scene

Some migrant workers here are using their limited free time to chase passions such as poetry, photography and painting

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Most of the week, they toil in homes and at construction sites. But as they climb scaffolding or clean windows, lines of poetry or song bloom in their minds. Sometimes, their fingers, clenched around a drill or a broom, yearn to close instead around a paintbrush or a camera.

Foreign workers here are using their scant free time to pursue art, with more in recent years stepping up their contributions to the local arts scene.

On a recent Saturday evening, more than 60 people packed the second floor of a Rowell Road shophouse to hear Bangladeshi workers recite their poetry. They were joined by local poets such as Cyril Wong, Ng Yi-Sheng and Deborah Emmanuel.

But the spotlight was on the workers, who mostly recited in Bengali with the help of a student translator to an audience of Singaporeans and foreigners packed shoulder to shoulder, many standing in the aisle or sitting on the floor.

The first-time event was organised by Mohammed Mukul Hossine, a Bangladeshi construction worker who last year became the first foreign worker to have a poetry collection put out by local publisher Ethos Books.

It joins existing events such as the three-year-old Migrant Worker Poetry Competition.

(Above from left) Indonesians Nur Hidayati, 31, and Wiwik Triwinarsih, 32, and Bangladeshi Mahbub Hasan Dipu, 28, are three of the five migrant workers who helped design a mural at the Goodman Arts Centre as part of the Migrant Workers Awareness Week
Migrant workers and Singaporeans packed into a shophouse to listen to workers recite their poems in Bengali and translated by a student. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
(Above from left) Indonesians Nur Hidayati, 31, and Wiwik Triwinarsih, 32, and Bangladeshi Mahbub Hasan Dipu, 28, are three of the five migrant workers who helped design a mural at the Goodman Arts Centre as part of the Migrant Workers Awareness Week. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Previously, these were mostly organised for workers by local volunteers, whereas nowadays, the workers themselves are more involved in getting seen and heard.

Mukul, 26, forked out $500 - at least half his monthly salary - for the event, which he hopes to organise every three months or so.

"It is the perfect way to make friendships and to bring our poetry to Singaporeans," he says.

It was supported by migrant community clinic Healthserve and advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), which let the poets use its shophouse space for free. Mukul covered other expenses, such as a printed banner.

Engineer Rajib Shil Jibon, 30, recited his poem about gazing at the moon from his dormitory canteen. "It makes me forget I am of a different nation from you," he explains. "I become a son of nature."

The workers have, in turn, left their mark on local poetry. Construction worker S. Rahman Liton's use of the nucleus poem, a Bengali form with a syllable count based on the number of electrons in the subshells of an atom, was adopted as a prompt in the ongoing Singapore Poetry Writing Month, or SingPoWriMo, where participants must write a poem every day of this month and post it on Facebook.

A new poetry anthology by 18 workers, Migrant Tales, came out in December and sells for $10 in stores such as Books Kinokuniya, BooksActually and Booktique.

Its co-editor, construction supervisor Zakir Hossain Khokan, 39, says it has sold 500 copies and he hopes to use the profits to fund two book fairs of Bengali literature at Booktique and Mustafa Shopping Centre at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Filipino domestic helper Angela Barotia last year won an accolade overseas for her lead role in the local feature film Remittance, about the experience of being a maid in Singapore.

Remittance, which was shot in 2013 in Singapore and the Philippines, garnered Barotia, 39, a Best Actress Certificate of Outstanding Achievement at the Brooklyn Film Festival in New York. It had its first screening in Singapore last month at the National Gallery Singapore.

The mother of two girls aged 10 and 15 auditioned because she wanted something more from life here. "I just wanted to do something different besides going out on Sundays for picnics and walking around Orchard Road," she says.

She was working at the time for a British family, who agreed to let her take part. The directors arranged for another worker to take over her chores during the three-month shoot.

Filming hit too close to home for her at times. One scene, in which the character argues with her husband back home, was painful to enact because she was drawing on personal experiences.

When she goes home to the Philippines, everyone assumes she is now rich and famous because she was in a film. The truth is, however, that she was not paid because that would have been illegal, given her work permit.

The pursuit of art is enough of a struggle for local artists, few of whom can afford to make art full- time. It is an even greater challenge for foreign workers, whose lives are circumscribed by long working hours, the financial burden of sending money home and the vagaries of work permits, which can be cancelled at an employer's whim.

Mukul was almost repatriated last year when his previous employer abruptly cancelled his work permit and gave him 10 days to find a new job. At the eleventh hour, he was hired by design and installation company Dezign Format, which supports his literary pursuits.

The members of Migrants' Band, a music group comprising mostly Bangladeshi workers, find it difficult to meet every weekend at TWC2's space to rehearse on donated instruments.

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They have a core group of about 15, who perform at migrant arts events as well as at worker dormitories and also for the public. Last month, they played at underground music store Melantun Records in Far East Plaza.

Construction worker and singer Mohammad Sheid Rana, 27, says: "All the men are working and we have different (days off)." But he makes time even when he is exhausted because he is never happier than when he is belting out Bengali love songs in front of a crowd.

Many workers see art as a way to reach out to Singaporeans, from whom they are often separated by language barriers.

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Indonesian helper Wiwik Triwinarsih, who writes and draws at night when she cannot sleep, recently helped to design a mural that is on display at the Goodman Arts Centre until the month's end.

"I want this mural to help me communicate that we are all human, we also have families and we need time for them," says the 32-year-old. "Our hearts are in two places."

The 2m by 2.4m mural was produced last month as part of Migrant Workers Awareness Week, an annual programme in its third year organised by National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS students to bridge the gap between the local and migrant communities.

It was designed by five migrant workers with the aid of arts education platform Mural Lingo and painted with the help of members of the public. Ms Wiwik, a Muslim, drew inspiration from a poem she wrote about the anguish of having to skip evening prayers to finish her chores.

Activist Debbie Fordyce, a TWC2 executive committee member, says: "We have to recognise there is an awful lot of unrecognised talent among migrant workers. We tend to think of them as just workers. They're not.

"I hope all of them will one day be able to go back home and follow their passions without having to work abroad to survive."

That is what Indonesian helper Suyamti, who goes by one name, hopes to do. After attending a photography course by non-profit organisation Aidha, the 44-year-old saved up for more than a year to buy a $1,350 DSLR camera.

Now she spends her days off organising shoots for a group of amateur photographers.

She dreams of saving enough to set up her own photo studio back home. "I feel happy when I get a good shot," she says, "but there is so much more I need to learn."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline Migrant workers contribute to local arts scene. Subscribe