Sharing about the art of living well and leaving well

Retiree Jason Ong, 72, with a photo of a red traditional wedding basket used by his grandmother, mother and wife.
Retiree Jason Ong, 72, with a photo of a red traditional wedding basket used by his grandmother, mother and wife.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Mr Tan Kee Seng, 63, retired about 10 years ago from a long career in the culinary arts.

He started as a chef at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, did a six-year stint as a baker in a neighbourhood bakery and finished in a restaurant at Marina Bay Sands.

But the retiree who lives alone in a one-room flat missed cooking and feeding people so much that he joined a cooking workshop in March this year with his neighbours in block 7, Telok Blangah Crescent.

The workshop, organised by artist Shirley Soh, had him and other elderly residents whipping up their signature dishes, such as laksa, chicken curry and fish soup.

Ms Soh filmed the weekly cooking segments and narrated the stories of elderly participants for a public art installation now displayed at the void deck of block 7.

There are four artworks in the installation, which also showcases plants grown by Mr Tan in a neighbourhood garden. This is part of a community engagement project that uses the arts to stir conversations about end-of-life issues.

The third edition of the Both Sides, Now project - supported by Lien Foundation, Ang Chin Moh Foundation, Drama Box and ArtsWok Collaborative - will come to a close this Sunday.

From now till then, there will also be a carnival for all ages to discuss end-of-life issues at the field next to Safra Mount Faber.

The elderly residents in block 7 - which comprises owned and rental flats - have complex issues such as social isolation, said the project's spokesman.

"In engaging the Telok Blangah community, we found that a conversation about dying well seems pointless if everyday existence is a struggle. Hence, we realised that we have to talk about how to live well now," said Mr Kok Heng Leun, the project's artistic director.

Wanting to cook healthy food for his neighbours, Mr Tan plucked a heap of nutrient-packed moringa leaves from his garden to make moringa omelette.

"They loved the omelette and I felt happy feeding them. It reminded me of my time as a chef in the hotels," he said.

About 40 seniors in that block contributed to the void deck installation, which is headed by local artists.

Local artist Angie Seah had conducted sound and movement sessions in the void deck, which were then captured in a picture collage.

One such session involved engaging with a visually impaired man by getting him to listen to the sounds in his house that were part of his life, such as water trickling and the shaking of barley beans.

For retiree Jason Ong, 72, keepsakes such as his collection of first day covers and handmade candy containers got a new lease of life in an exhibit.

Five photos he took, including of a traditional red wedding basket that was used by his grandmother, mother and wife, were printed onto postcards that visitors can take home.

Mr Kok noted that honoured memories lend dignity to the identity expressed by elderly people.

"Memories are moments that the elderly will always hold dear. They define their dignity and pave the way for the process of dignified dying."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2019, with the headline 'Sharing about the art of living well and leaving well'. Print Edition | Subscribe