Updated: Mar 17
by Kar-men Cheng
“African sujee with African stew. If you take away the sujee and replace it with rice, it can also be eaten as Malay food so it’s technically Malay slash African food”, Hayden, 13, describes the dish his mother, Lisa, decided to cook for the second edition of This is What We Eat At Home. Hayden’s description of this dish clearly reflects his half Nigerian and half Malay heritage. It also brings to mind the candid fluidity of his cultural identity– “Usually I identify myself as a Malay but like if people ask me what I am, I just say I'm African. I'm not really sure, sometimes I just call myself rojak.”
Hayden taking a picture with Larry's guidance while Zam chats with Hayden's mom, Lisa during the home visit
Hayden is one of six children and youth who participated in this year’s This is What We Eat At Home, a participatory photography project organised two years in a row by community arts and social development agency 3Pumpkins. The participants are members of 3Pumpkins’ Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC), an arts-based community youth centre located at Boon Lay Drive. When the Singapore HeritageFest (SHF) approached 3Pumpkins founder, Lin Shiyun, last year to create a community artwork, she thought it would be a good opportunity to engage with the diversity of stories contained within this especially multicultural neighbourhood, where a substantial number of families are made up of permanent residents, with one or both parents from another country. Beyond its multiethnic nature, Boon Lay Drive is socially complex, housing different configurations of families within predominantly rental flat units. Many families are on social assistance, helmed by single parents, or with parents often not around due to long working long hours and a range of complex factors. As a result, many children are brought up by their grandparents, extended family or elder siblings. Apart from fulfilling SHF's objectives of showcasing heritage diversity, the other intention guiding this project was to find out how caregiving happens in these families.
What more instinctive way to enter a conversation about culture, everyday life and identity, than through a home-cooked meal? The kids were invited to photograph their caregivers preparing dishes that were significant to their family. This is What We Eat at Home would be a platform for them to peer into their own life, and capture the things they wanted to show the public about their family mealtimes. Photographer Larry Toh came in to guide each child through their explorations.
Larry gently guides Audra as she prepares a shot of her mother’s hands
Last year, the photographs were presented alongside recordings of interviews, recipes, and drawings in a void deck beside TTKC, which the community refurbished with murals. (The pandemic restrictions cut the show short, but it continues to exist online.)
This is What We Eat at Home happens again this year, on 9–21 March, presented at the Esplanade’s March On Festival. Both years’ editions, featuring all 12 participants, will be shown at the Esplanade Courtyard Green, in an interactive installation designed by C O O P. The works find themselves among various playground structures. See-saw seats and swing sets imbue the viewing experience with “an atmosphere of playing”. They also allow both caregivers and kids to enjoy the exhibition at the same time. Weiling from C O O P says, “We wanted to create spaces in the exhibition structure that trigger different relations and conversations between people.”
Mock-up of the installations at the Esplanade Courtyard
More important than painting a picture of different cultures for the public, the project was first and foremost an opportunity for the participants to deepen relationships and explore their identity. The process became a sort of portal for each child to understand themselves through delving into and, for some of them, learning to accept their family history. It was also a way for TTKC to learn about the family dynamics they go home to at the end of the day.
“The first audience of This is What We Eat at Home is the kids”, remarks Shiyun, “because they are the ones taking the photos– deciding what to take and selecting which ones to show. This process allows them to slow down, and look at their life again with a different lens.”
Arel focuses on his mom preparing mango lassi
The participant selection process took into account the families’ cultural background, the rapport TTKC had with them, and their availability— the objective was to include an array of social and cultural dynamics. And because the participation required presence and dedication over several weeks, the kids that were chosen were “those that demonstrated that they were ready to take on project work”, Shiyun explains.
This decision is in line with TTKC’s model of engagement, which considers each child’s individual learning trajectory. In the initial outreach phase, capacity to learn is built through play, followed by bespoke developmental programmes designed for those who are ready to learn. 9-year-old Sulaiman is an example of a child who has demonstrated a readiness to learn, through delving wholeheartedly into the centre’s daily activities. He is usually the one sketching out visuals for various 3Pumpkins campaigns, taking on the title “resident artist”. (You can find Sulaiman’s famous portraits throughout the exhibition.)
This year, the team put together some workshops to orient the kids around the project's themes. Before they documented their caregivers, they attended a basic photography course that took place at TTKC over two afternoons. Larry, whose own practice focuses on documentary family photography, led the kids through the fundamentals of creating an image— running through camera functions, and also sharing ways they could approach telling a story inside a frame. He used images taken by last year’s This is What We Eat at Home participants as teaching examples, pointing to Lucas’ close-up of his great grandfather’s hands– “see here you can see a wedding band, and also this plaster…possibly he just had an injection”, and Aaron’s wide-shot of his father cooking that allowed us to see a religious symbol on the wall– “through this detail, we are allowed to know something more about this home”.
Larry sharing photo-taking techniques with the participants
Shiyun says photography was chosen as a medium for the project because “it’s a quiet process”. In a community that’s often quite raucous, photography gives the kids a chance to filter out the noise, and focus on what they find essential to capture. And then hopefully a sense of agency emerges from taking control of their own narrative.
She relays that the original plan last year was for Larry to document the whole process, but the team eventually decided that it was best to have the children participate as active documentors.“The photographer observes, captures, processes and organises the information. It is this process that generates and retains the most knowledge. It is important that we empower the children to take on this role.”
Like Hayden, the other participants discovered different throughways into learning about their heritage, as well as articulating the aspects of it they chose to define as their own. This year, This is What We Eat at Home started with a workshop designed to get the kids to reflect on the history and experiences that bore the food they eat every day at home. The session began around a giant world map. The kids were asked to identify where their parents and grandparents were from, and talk about their journeys to Singapore.
Participants, together with AJ, Shiyun and Zam, identifying their families’ origins on a world map
The conversations that ensued over the next four weeks illuminated vast differences in the kids’ understanding of their family heritage, as well as more conceptual ideas about nationality and ethnicity. Some had a clear grasp of their ethnic culture. 11-year-old Eshal reveals , “My mum taught me to be proud to be Boyanese.” Through her, we would learn about Boyanese dishes– “ayam masak merah, sambal telur, sayur lodeh lontong”, and stereotypical characteristics of Boyanese people– “they always have the angry, angry face…you see the face they very angry, but you talk to them, very kind”. Others knew less about their family heritage. Raised by her Vietnamese mother who speaks only Vietnamese and a little Mandarin, 10-year-old Cindy identifies most strongly as “an English child”– due perhaps to her strong grasp of the English language. She speaks like an American YouTuber and she chose ramen– her everyday staple– as the dish she will present in the exhibition. (In the end, her mother fried chicken wings, Cindy’s favourite dish.)
Left: Eshal with her mom and sisters
Right: Cindy and her mom
While the diverse array of dishes featured in the exhibition reflects each family’s cultural tradition, they also shed light on the realities of everyday life. In a later interview, Cindy muses about what she took to be her mother Hien’s special power, “When I’m hungry, she cooks very fast. When I tell her I want ramen, she makes the ramen in five seconds, and I’m ‘heh?!’” The day the project team went to her house for documentation, it was clear that two hours was a lot to ask of someone that has a lot on their plate. At 2pm, Hien left her morning fruit-selling shift, rushed to the supermarket to get ingredients, prepared several plates of fried chicken, and rushed back out for her 5pm job serving beer at a nearby coffee shop.
Arel's mom whipped up a full-course meal — (from top left) keema, matter paneer, chol, laccha paratha, mango lassi in the blender
11-year-old Arel’s mother, Sheetal, cooked four dishes. She shared that she consulted her husband who was overseas on what to cook, and even watched a documentary to inspire the menu of traditional Punjabi dishes. When we asked Arel what he liked about the project, he expressed that it was a very long time that his mother had visitors over, due to pandemic restrictions, and that she was often quite lonely. He also related to us what he discovered through spending time with her during the project: “My mom can actually be nice! She’s not always strict! It’s like when you find your lost cat after five years.” Arel got to see another side of his ‘tiger mom’, as we got to know the both of them together over a languid 4-hour afternoon of cooking, eating, and sharing.
Appearance of Rizqi, Audra's youngest brother, while Audra photographs her mom making jelly dadih
Equally enlightening were the conversations we had with participants in the text flurry of logistics– menu planning, scheduling, absences. These exchanges offered glimpses into how family members supported each other in their relationships and in their everyday routine. 11-year-old Audra and her mother, Aminah, chose to feature dadih jelly in the project, because it is easy and quick to prepare. When asked what she was busy with the whole day (during school holidays when documentation took place), she immediately replied, “Siblings and my phone.” From the moment she wakes up, her schedule revolves around her baby siblings. She describes a care routine around cooking, showering, naptime, and her struggle for some personal space, “My own time? I play my phone and if they wake up, I have to make them go fall asleep back…cos I want to play my phone.”
12-year-old Yaxuan is a central node in her family’s communications. In her interview with Shiyun, she describes being the only grandchild that speaks Teochew and the messenger between her Ah Ma (grandmother) and Ah Gong (grandfather) , “‘Eh Xuan ah, go give your Ah Gong this, go tell your Ah Gong this.’” Although several decades apart in age, she speaks impishly about her grandmother like she is a peer– “Both of us looking at each other ‘Eh, what you doing?’ ‘Eh what you doing?’” Throughout the interview, her description of Ah Ma’s traits prompts Shiyun to point out their similarities,
Ya Xuan: When she laughs, she also (mimics hitting) “Pah! Pah!”
Shiyun: Maybe, that’s why you also express love like that.
Ya Xuan setting up the shot with Ah Ma; Ah Gong going about his day in the background
Yaxuan relays her Ah Ma’s story of learning how to make png kueh from her mother-in-law as a young woman. Forbidden to touch anything, Ah Ma could only observe and experiment by herself at home. Yaxuan says that this “teach by not teaching” method is now what Ah Ma uses with her, and what she in turn uses with her friends. Shiyun agrees with this observation, “So you always tell people ‘Just see ah!’”
A lot of relational work came into play in the unfolding of This is What We Eat at Home– caregivers becoming closer to their kids through working on a project together, kids feeling closer to family through questioning their heritage. One unexpected issue that arose had to do with compensation. We compensated both parents and kid for their participation, including the costs of ingredients and labour. Last year, we gave the whole sum to the caregivers who would safeguard it for their kids, or purchase things for them. This year, one incident made us reflect on these mechanisms. A youth felt entitled to the money, and took it from his mother’s wallet. The altercation that broke out brought with it some family communication issues, which TTKC stepped in to help facilitate. When a community development project catalyses uneasy conversations, it reminds us what our core work is– responding to issues on the ground and providing a platform for people to build stronger connections. In this case, it was helping this youth and his mother develop understanding and respect for each other’s experiences.
This is What We Eat at Home was a rare chance for TTKC to engage kids’ caregivers. Because of the centre’s child-centric and child-led programming, caregivers are usually at the periphery of our day-to-day operations. From the shared experiences of this project, casual acquaintances grew into trusting relationships, with parents reaching out to us about problems happening in the block, or if they personally need assistance. We got to know a different side of the community, through spending time in its homes. Project manager Ajriani Asrul shares that one of the most rewarding things about the whole experience was the opportunity to forge relationships with caregivers, “It takes two hands to clap– letting someone into your home is a very vulnerable thing to do.”
AJ and Larry greet Eshal’s family at their front door