Updated: Mar 21
By Ziv Oh Edited by Lin Shiyun
Ci Xuan is a young artist who volunteers regularly at TTKC, assisting the centre on Wednesdays where a getai (song stage) routine has developed from shadow puppetry play. She even managed to create a horror film with the children! In this interview facilitated by Ziv, Ci Xuan shares her journey in co-creating with the community, and what inspires her to be a… TTKC pet cat?
Ziv: How did you find out about TTKC and what brought you here?
Ci Xuan: I think I found out about it everywhere on social media. My closest encounter was because I was part of the youth wing of Drama Box, Artivate, then Shiyun was doing a project at “Both Sides, Now”, so that was when I first got to meet Shiyun, and then I did hear about TTKC.
Actually, I was very nervous to be in this space, like I felt very nervous when Shiyun was like “eh come lah”. I was like what is “eh come lah” (laughs). Like what do I do? But I was okay, since I’m taking a half-year break and I don’t really have a job, and this space looks like fun. After leaving Artivate, I didn’t have any community-related work to do. Because covid was all-out, I didn’t have practice grounds. So I thought that this community (TTKC) was established and it would be a challenge to come here, so I took it on.
Ziv: You mentioned the “eh come lah” from Shiyun. Could you share some context of that story?
Ci Xuan: Ok, I think I was posting quite a lot of art I did online. I did puppetry, dancing videos… I don’t know what Shiyun thought lah, but she was like “hey come TTKC to do this”... but how can I? Like the art was so weird (laughs), it was me dressing in weird clothes, dancing in spaces or just shadow puppetry. So when I came here the first thing I did was to explore puppetry with the children.
Ci Xuan’s “weird” art
Ziv: Hmm, what do you mean by your art is “weird” in relation to TTKC’s art?
Ci Xuan: It’s not exactly kids friendly. I was like “oh my god, how much should I censor myself in this space?” But now, I just talk lor, I don’t really censor. The art now is figuring out what the kids want. And helping them if they want it. They have to want something in order for me to support them. It can’t be me imposing a certain thing on them, so that was the challenge.
TTKC kids playing around with shadows
Ziv: Integrating into the community wise, how was that like for you?
Ci Xuan: I think I was really awkward at first. The kids are just damn friendly. I don’t know what will happen if the kids hate me. But yeah, after a few weeks, magically it just… happened. I think it’s Cheryl (3Pumpkins’ programme manager) and all of you lah. Then I started learning a lot of things from the kids. So it would be like “can you teach me how to juggle? How do you do this?”. For me and S, I taught him Chinese, and in return, he taught me how to draw… yeah I learn so much from them, then we just chill and talk lor.
Ziv: When I first saw you, you were immediately involved in the getai. How has your involvement evolved since then?
Ci Xuan: Wah when I first came, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I still don’t know (laughs). I think my journey has evolved from something very product-driven to… process-driven. At first, every week when I go in at 3pm, I tell myself to put out a product by 7pm, so there had to be something made, so I delegated work and collaborated with the kids, and the “Ooga Booga Man'' series came about. After that, I haven't been doing concrete things. What I’ve been doing, is having conversations with people who are interested in putting up a programme since the getai became a weekly routine. Then support them accordingly by helping them articulate their interests.
Tickets to the “Ooga Booga Man” performance
Ziv: What were the challenges transitioning from a product-driven to a process-driven approach with the community?
Ci Xuan: I felt very pressured at first, I felt like all the adults were doing so well (laughs). So I’m just very stressed, even now, when I’m not doing anything productive. Let’s take an example of me and V. V wants to perform, but he’s just not ready to sit down and work on things when I try to support him. That’s very common with kids I think, but we had a lot of interesting conversations even though nothing was eventually made out of that.
Take another example, I had wanted to try contemporary dance today with the kids, but nobody appreciated it. Everyone was into hip-hop because of you. NO ONE APPRECIATES CONTEMPT BECAUSE OF YOU ZIV! (laughs). Then we suddenly talked about singing. It was a messy process. I was initially interacting with one child, but another child R joined in and suggested doing a romantic piece. And then I started to teach him some contemporary moves… and WHERE IS THIS GOING (laughs)
Ziv: (laughs) How did it get to singing?
Ci Xuan: (laughs) I don’t know!
Ziv: That’s the magic!
Ci Xuan: Yeah, so one moment R was singing, and I heard his solo, then I was guiding him and pushed him to sing. I think he was very bummed up about forgetting the lyrics. But I assured him that the audio was still there, and he did not make things awkward with the silence.
R singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in one of the recent Getai performances
Ziv: Mmmm…. Ok how did the whole horror filming even come up about?
Ci Xuan: (laughs) It was after the Ooga Booga Series, and I realised that I didn’t know what to do. And then Cheryl suggested doing something for Halloween. So I decided to collect stories and pieced them into a short video. The funniest part was that all these really began with me, A, and SH talking about setting up a Sleeping Club while lepak-ing outside big TTKC, and then I asked them about horror stories they have heard of. SH started writing it, A or someone else changed the names to the TTKC kids… and that’s how the cast was decided.
After we had a nice script, whatever that was acted out, was so different, and I was like “oh my god, only editing can save this”. So yeah, that’s how it happened.
Ci Xuan working with the cast of the horror film
Ziv: Were there any key learnings for you from this experience?
Ci Xuan: Yeah… you cannot plan for this (everyone laughs) It’s impossible. I think no one realised how tough it was to do film. Like C was the cast, and a lot of things were going on that day: my other cast weren’t here, and C was sitting there, very tired with her make-up on. We had to NG a lot of scenes, and the kids got tired really fast. So we didn’t finish the storyboard, and went impromptu instead. Thankfully there was YX, she assisted in the directing… It was really different. I didn’t pre-empt them about what making a film was like.
Ziv: I think their experience with you paid off. I brought some of your cast for a filming trip after that… and I felt they were quite focused.
Ci Xuan: It was really a first for everyone. It was really fun, and I learned a lot. Like must preempt them, must have stamina (laughs).
'TTKC Halloween 2021', an indie short film led by Ci Xuan with cast and crew made up of children in the community.
Ziv: How would you currently define your role in TTKC?
Ci Xuan: Oh my god (laughs). So I write reflections every week. The main questions are “Why am I here?”, “What the hell am I doing here?” and “What’s my role?”. I still don’t have an answer to the last one. When I describe my work at TTKC to other people, they’re just like “what? So they just set up a performance every week?” Yeah, it’s very unimaginable for others outside this community. I’m interested in putting up performances, in all aspects… but I’m not an Uncle Farez where I can facilitate a large group of small boys. I also came from an all-girls school for a very long time, so I hardly interact with the boys’ at their age. So yeah. I’m here to support them in what I can.
Ziv: So… a stage manager role?
Ci Xuan: No lah I’m not an SM. I’m here to understand how kids create art and support them.
Ziv: How do you see this role developing in future? Or would you be able to find your answer to this question?
Ci Xuan: My role here? I hate the word “role” (laughs)
Ziv: You can share why you hate it.
Ci Xuan: Because this space is so spontaneous, to come in with a fixed role is so difficult. I just try to blend in conversations. If I don’t see that conversation going anywhere, I leave it. And I find somewhere else, where I can better support people. Like my role here is not to be an artist. But to be a creative companion with the children.
I like to think of myself as a pet cat. I want to be TTKC’s pet cat. Then I just sit beside them, then imagine they sing a song, and I’m like “Meow meow! Good job!” Then they will be like “Awwww this cat said I did well!” So every Wednesday I stroll in, I meow at conversations. I want to be a cat which children like. I want to try talking to them... I think I’m a person with very bad boundaries? I hate boundaries. But I’ve been practising that here. Because boundaries are so hard… I wish I could talk to them about everything, but I can’t? Because I don’t know how to?
Farez observes and facilitates the development of the show, while Ci Xuan assists with puppetry behind the curtains.
Ziv: What do you define as boundaries with the community?
Ci Xuan: Like adult-kid...dynamic-boundary? Ok so for example, I was doing the Casa Raudha project where I had to ask the children about their perspectives about domestic violence. And then I had to talk to people like N, who had experience with depression, self-harm and identity. I think I can relate to that a lot. I would love to be friends with her, and I wanna have open conversations but I find it hard to. I don’t know how much suicidal thoughts I would wanna tell the kids. Yeah…
Ziv: Do you feel that your boundaries you set are against yourself or the community?
Ci Xuan: Err, I’m very afraid it will be against the community? Like what if I cannot wrap this conversation up properly, because I’m not trained to do so? Sometimes I doubt what I have to offer, so I just listen.
Ziv: Thank you for sharing.. Now that you mentioned this, would you say that these boundaries were a challenge for you?
Ci Xuan: Yeah. Probably. When AI (a youth who is on the spectrum) was here, it was a huge problem. She was always with me and I had to tell her “no”, and she would cry a lot. And I wanted to be there for her, but I couldn’t be the disciplinarian. Zam (3Pumpkins’ youth work manager and community artist) has been the one doing it, but I couldn’t. I think she has enough of that everywhere, at home, wherever.. Even if she’s not telling the truth, I don’t want to be that person. I grew up not having people trust me. So I grew up with trauma, and because people don’t trust me, I think it has affected me a lot. But I do get things across. I practised with her how to regulate and articulate her emotions when she's emotional- she needs to practise such stuff, and these conversations happen after babying her. But it can be very tiring if you don’t learn how to draw boundaries. If I’m here every day, I can’t do that. That relationship can spiral, if you don’t take control over it.
Ziv: Would you say that learning to explore these boundaries is beneficial for you?
Ci Xuan: Yeah definitely. When it comes to working with the community, what is your relationship? Because relationships are so volatile right… It’s a very challenging thing for me. I have not experienced working so deeply with a community before. Like usually it’s just touch-go, haha.
Ziv: Okay, this might sound repetitive, how do you define your relationship with the community in TTKC? It does not have to be TTKC as a whole, but perhaps the members you’re closer to.
Ci Xuan: It’s more than a friend-friend relationship. TTKC is not just a place to come here to have fun and play every week. There is the work that is always going at the back of my head. So… pet cat (laughs). I’m invested in creating or helping them articulate personal style if there is.
Ziv: What do you find the most rewarding here about working at TTKC?
Ci Xuan: The conversations. When I sit in a corner, and just go “how are you” and things start, that’s the most valuable small moments. It’s not about the shows, I love having one-on-one conversations with the people here, and hearing what’s going on with their lives.
Check out the other articles in This is Us! Chit Chat series: