Deon Phua, a co-founder of art collective Tell Your Children, and Tan Hwee En, a producer of Singapore Community Radio, are together the powerhouse force behind the upcoming documentary on the history of Singapore’s creative scene.
We speak to them about their ambitious project.
ESQUIRE: We have to start with the obvious: how did this project begin?
DEON PHUA: Hwee En and I meet up quite often, and one day we were just talking about how we felt that the younger creatives don’t know Singapore has this rich cultural heritage.
TAN HWEE EN: Coincidentally, I was doing a cultural research project at the time and everybody that I talked to didn’t know anybody else before Tell Your Children (TYC) or before our generation.
PHUA: In my industry, I have a lot of friends in the creative fields who are older, like SBTG, the guys from Phunk… all these people who came before me. I felt that I was in a good position to tell their stories because that’s what I hear whenever I meet them. And we should immortalise these stories that nobody knew about by putting them into a documentary.
ESQ: What kind of stories?
PHUA: SBTG told me a long time ago that before eBay or Carousell, people would just buy shoes off people in the street. If you’re at the skate park and you see someone with shoes that you like, you can buy those off them then and there. There are more stories of this kind and if we don’t archive them now, they will be lost.
ESQ: You both seem younger than the subjects of your documentary.
TAN: I’m turning 30 this year and I was in advertising for five or six years, but as of last year I’m working at Singapore Community Radio, which is a platform that champions local creativity. We’re trying to cover different creative disciplines locally throughout the media landscape. So even though I came from advertising, I’ve always been quite curious about our local culture.
PHUA: I’m turning 29 this year. I started TYC with a few friends in 2014. We have been quite active in the creative scene and that’s how I met a lot of these guys that we look up to. At TYC we are not just involved in the visual art scene, but I’m personally quite involved in the music scene as well. In our industry, it’s quite common to be in just one discipline but I was blessed to be involved in a variety of disciplines.
For the documentary, we want to make sure that we consider culture as a whole, as opposed to something specific like the clubbing scene or graphic design. There’s never been a documentary that showcases local urban culture as a whole. If we went into this open-ended, there would be a lot to cover. So we decided to focus on street art and graffiti, fashion, visual arts and music in the documentary. We use these as pillars to form a framework.
TAN: We are trying to make sure we are not working with a very small group of people. We wanted to make sure that there’s representation across different disciplines.
ESQ: Were you not taught about the local creatives of the past?
TAN: When you’re in school, people don’t tell you about the ones that came before.
PHUA: I think because we are focusing on culture but a lot of our teachers or lecturers are not involved in the culture in the same way. Maybe they were commercial illustrators-turned-lecturers but they’re not involved in urban street culture. That’s something we discovered on our own. For me, I didn’t even know about Phunk Studio until I started to dig deep. I never knew about Theseus until I graduated from poly.
ESQ: I’d just assume that the syllabus would mention the local creative scene.
PHUA: I don’t think my lecturer would even know of Theseus.
TAN: I feel that you’ll know about these people if you’re working in the industry. Or through friends or working with them.
ESQ: What was your first interaction with the local creative scene?
TAN: That’s a hard question to answer. There was never a singular point of entry.
PHUA: It has always been a lifestyle. I’ve always been interested in it: streetwear, underground music… I am always drawn to the more alternative side of things. Since secondary school, I’ve been going to underground gigs at Scape. I was seeking out streetwear brands for the longest time at Far East Plaza, buying brands like Famous Stars and Straps and listening to music like Blink-182. After that, you try to find a local equivalent here.
ESQ: Was there ever a local equivalent?
PHUA: I remember West Grand Boulevard when they did the *SCAPE Invasion Tour at my secondary school. I skipped one of my classes to watch them play and then I snuck back after that, and got caught. I was always drawn to independent music and art. I did art in school and I knew I always wanted to do something creative from a very young age already.
TAN: My university had a lot of bands that were always playing at school gigs. But my friends and I were always listening to international artists. Growing up, you sort of wonder why Singaporeans are not more tuned into the local acts. It’s only when you grow up and have the money and means to pay to attend all these gigs that you start to notice a bit more. That’s my personal experience.
ESQ: There’s the internet, right? Why do you think that the younger generation isn’t familiar with the local creative scene?
PHUA: I mean, back then, they didn’t have the internet and a lot of them didn’t have smartphones for taking videos and photos, so it is hard to find them. So it is quite inaccessible now. All these old bands like Humpback Oak and The Oddfellows, you can’t find them on Spotify. CDs and vinyl records are ridiculously expensive. I was trying to find this vinyl of Zircon Lounge, Singapore’s first-ever alternative band. The record is going for $4-500 now. You can’t find it anywhere else except on YouTube. It’s just inaccessible for the younger generation.
TAN: I think it’s a lack of awareness, too. If you don’t have an inkling that it exists, you probably won’t look for it. This builds into this misconception that there wasn’t anything like that in Singapore. So, no one looks for the first punk band in Singapore, the first design studio, the first graffiti artist. You’ll only look them up unless you’re curious or you are aware that they exist. There is this misunderstanding that there is no local creative heritage.
PHUA: It’s a stereotype of Singaporeans not having any creative freedom to do things.
TAN: People just don’t think about finding them. You can find Stompin’ Ground or Concave Scream on YouTube, but do people know about them to find out more? That is the gap we’re trying to fill.
ESQ: Is this a quest to archive the history of the creative scene?
PHUA: Firstly, when we wanted to do this, we decided it shouldn’t be a historical film. We don’t want it to be a film where we catalogue everything in Singapore’s creative past because there is just so much stuff. The documentary will present the scene in the ’90s with talking heads telling us what it was like. It’s more of a showcase of how it was then, as opposed to showing historical facts of what happened. It’s meant for the local and international audiences, to tell them that there’s so much creative heritage that Singapore offers. We knew some of the people involved, but as we went deeper there were a lot of things that we uncovered. It was a journey of exploration, at least for us.
We want to showcase Singapore that has an interesting creative scene. And next, to inspire young creatives that if the older generation is still into their craft, it’s possible for people like us to follow our passion. A lot of people are looking overseas to pursue their craft. But they always think that it is only achievable in New York, Los Angeles, Korea or London, whatever. If they see people who have done it, that would motivate them more to pursue what they want.
TAN: We’re trying to investigate what exactly were the spirit and attitude of these creatives at that time because Singapore’s creative scene was barren. They were almost like the forerunners to what we have today. We want to show that Singaporeans have that attitude and spirit to want to do something pretty kick-ass; what is the lesson that Singaporeans can take away? Maybe Singapore isn’t as boring as people think it is. In a way, it’s using that period to reflect upon. It’s not a time capsule; it’s more of what we can learn from that moment.
ESQ: Does any of you have any documentary production background?
TAN: No, I’ve done production stuff for advertising but never something like this. We’re thankful to the partners, AMOK and No Average Joe, who helped us on this because the production partners that film and edit this all know we have zero experience in documentary or filmmaking, but they believe in what we are doing. They have been generous with their time and guidance.
PHUA: Fauxe is doing the soundtrack. We’re just pulling in our friends to help with this and they see how important this project is. We’re winging it but we’re winging it the best way we know-how. It’s really something new for us.
ESQ: What was the hardest part of this?
TAN: Knowing the importance of telling the story that represents our interviewees but also not boring those who are watching it. We’ve a repository of stories that no one has and that makes it a big responsibility to shoulder. It’s very ambitious that we’re covering about 30 to 40 people, so to encapsulate everyone’s stories in the documentary won’t be easy.
PHUA: The hardest part would be the script, I guess. Everything else is just production and technical stuff that are in good hands, but at the end of the day we have all these stories, so how do we take what is said and come up with a script? Storytelling will be the hardest.
ESQ: You managed to get the subjects that you need?
PHUA: Some were quite elusive.
ESQ: Who were the easiest to get for the interview?
PHUA: People we know personally. Our network is quite big, so the people that we wanted were just separated by a degree. We managed to get the majority of them. For the rest, it’s because schedules didn’t align.
TAN: Some didn’t want to revisit the past or be in the public limelight anymore. They all have their reasons.
ESQ: Was it easy for you to accept these refusals to be in the documentary?
TAN: No, we were quite upset. [laughs] We tried so many times. We got some really exciting people like Suhaimi Subandie, Chris Ho, Theseus Chan… we’re quite thankful because they are busy people but they took time to talk to us for three or four hours. To them, it felt weird that someone younger than them was interested in what they had done. That has been quite consistent with all our interviewees: why do you want to do this?
PHUA: It’s strange for them but I’ve always wanted to hear stories about their time. So it felt very natural to document it.
ESQ: Is this a series or feature?
TAN: We actually wanted it to be a book but figured that no one would want to read a huge-ass book. It’s going to be feature-length. We toyed with the idea of doing a docu-series but we didn’t want to break it up into different disciplines. Instead, we wanted this to be a holistic view of what was in the culture at that time. But we do hope that if the reception to the documentary does well, we can do shorter documentaries of the different subcultures in future. We’ve only scraped the surface of that period. We haven’t even plumbed the depths of the punk culture, the skinhead culture, the skateboarding culture…
ESQ: Have you tried approaching Singapore Tourism Board for funding?
PHUA: Yeah. We’ve made a lot of effort to reach out to them but there’s pushback. A lot of government bodies know about our project and have expressed interest but maybe because of red tape or fund allocation, they can’t commit to our project. So our next step is to put together a trailer and see if we can restart the conversation. But we don’t want people coming in to dictate what the film is to be, so we’re taking it one step at a time.
TAN: Technically, we don’t need capital to make the film, but we do think that having some money it’s going to help us market it better, so more people can know about it, and it can be screened in more places. Also, the potential engagement that comes with that, so it doesn’t just stop at the film itself. Maybe there can be a pop-up show or an exhibition or a panel. The documentary is just the start to spread the word about these stories.
ESQ: Is there anything you found surprising in the making of the documentary?
TAN: The older punks are very sentimental. It is somewhat unanimous that those who used to be or are still punks are the most sentimental out of the people we interviewed. They reminisce about how the scene has grown, or they still have a lot of anger about how the way things were back then. I’ve never thought they would still have this much passion after so long because you think the years would have ground them down to be more jaded, right? But the punks are the ones with the most powerful stories and who really cared about the scene.
PHUA: I was surprised by how everything was interconnected. An example would be, Kiat knew Najip Ali, who introduced him to Theseus and became Theseus’s first director. Najip also pushed Kiat on his musical journey to be a DJ. And under Najip, Sheikh Haikel and Ashidiq Ghazali formed Construction Sight and that became this first Southeast Asian hip-hop group to make it big back then. Then Ash moved over to drum and bass. Ash and Kiat started Guerrilla… everything was connected. It’s like the creative landscape is a whole family. In that era, everyone was just doing their own thing and there were so many collaborations with one another.
TAN: Many pointed out that technology changed everything. Before smartphones or the internet, the reason why they were so interconnected and knew everybody in the scene was because at that time when you wanted to experience something you had to be there. Because of that, they were a lot more adventurous about what they wanted to experience, and the idea of FOMO was a lot more real at that time.
Right now, you hang out at gigs that you like so you see the same people all the time, rather than just go for any random gig that is playing at the moment. Najip said what they were trying to do at the time was to collectively form a movement to push the culture forward. That was what we saw in that period and right now it’s more about finding your tribe, which I thought was quite true. Now that you get to see all these events you become very nitpicky, so you end up not meeting people outside of the circle. We got a sense that was what it was like being at Zouk in those days. Unprompted, people would always bring up Zouk.
ESQ: Any stories that stood out for you?
PHUA: We asked every interviewee to complete a sentence like “Singapore’s creative culture is…”. A lot of them would give different answers. Some would say “it’s booming”, others would say “it’s dead”. It’s interesting to hear these differing opinions about Singapore’s current creative scene. Suhaimi said, “Back then it was about expression. Now it’s about impression.”
TAN: “And punk is not a passion but an obsession.”
PHUA: A lot of one-liners that we can put in the trailer. [laughs]
ESQ: What are your expectations for the documentary?
TAN: To let viewers know that if these people, despite the many obstacles and government bans and restrictions, managed to produce music and art, what we have right now isn’t as difficult as back then. Why are we so scared of doing our own things? Hopefully we all can reflect and go out and do our own creative thing without worrying about what others think. Another thing is that to truly support a scene, you cannot just support the things that you like. You can not like someone’s work but you have to admire their dedication, their spirit for putting their stuff out there. Our culture has a lot to learn from this. We don’t give enough credit to the person behind the work.
PHUA: That is very true. One interview that stuck with me was Chris Ho’s. He said something about how Singaporean creatives are very focused on being alternative and cool, but we tend to forget that without a mainstream there’s no alternative. He kind of changed my mind because before the interview, my inclination was always to shun the mainstream and consume more alternative music. Chris’s view was that we should still be supporting them because we need both sides to coexist.
TAN: He said he doesn’t know why so many people are sh*tting on Dick Lee and Jack Neo. It’s not that they are not good but because they are mainstream.
PHUA: Chris said when Dick Lee first became a musician the alternative scene didn’t accept him. So he found his fanbase in Japan. That’s why it took him as long as he did to get to where he is now. And that’s how we built our local scene. We don’t have to be dependent on people liking our stuff overseas before we like it back here in Singapore, which is like the main stereotype for how Singapore creatives have to be recognised.
ESQ: Anything else about the past that stood out?
TAN: It felt very male-dominated. We asked our friends about who to talk to for this project and we got a barrage of male names. The only female name off the top of everyone’s head was Ginette Chittick, then Tracy Phillips. Back then, it was male-dominated and it was hard for females to breakthrough. Which was interesting when Ginette came up with an all-female collective, it was quite revolutionary. When you asked the subjects why there was a lack of women in the scene, they sounded surprised that you’d ask that question because they never thought about it. It had never occurred to them. And they all found it quite odd too.
ESQ: What did Ginette and Tracy have to say about that?
PHUA: I think Tracy said she didn’t feel it as much because she was heading the marketing team at Zouk and that sector seemed to have more women in it. For Ginette, she was in the underground music scene and that was very male-dominated. She said she had been groped on stage, had gotten catcalls, people in the audience would scream that women couldn’t play the guitar… it was very tough for a female in that scene to find her own space. That’s when Ginette came up with the Riot Grrrl chapter where she ran all-female gigs, taught young girls how to skateboard and make their own DIY zines… That became a strong point of focus in helping young females find their voice in that space.
ESQ: During the making, did you ever feel like quitting?
TAN: When I was transcribing. [laughs] We had about 60 hours of transcripts to do.
PHUA: But quitting was never an option.
TAN: We told ourselves that how we got everyone on board to work with us on this without any monetary compensation… it felt like a reflection of the DIY mentality back in those days. Homeground Studios is doing audio. One of our friends is doing type design, another is tackling motion graphics. We had Suhaimi said to us very sincerely, “Guys, I’ve done many projects and they all fell through. And I’ve put in my heart and soul into every project.” Then he looked us in the eyes and said, “Please make sure that this doesn’t fall through.” That was the moment that we knew we cannot let this project die out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Deon Phua and Tan Hwee En’s as-yet untitled documentary on the history of Singapore’s creative scene is expected to be released at the end of this year.